Sunday, October 14, 2007

Appealing Rhetotic Drives Out Real Issues

Writing for Teacher Magazine, Anthony Cody cites economic axioms and a recent exchange in the comment section on this blog to make the case that the provisions in the NCLB legislation that currently call for, like, 1/3 of kids to learn, like, something are destroying the potential to reach a "gold standard" in education. Man, where's the hemlock when you need it?

Cody's not a bad guy. He knows there's all kinds of cool science stuff sitting in that High Street warehouse, and not enough teachers making good use of it, and he's right that there can be more to education that success on a single measure of academic performance. But he's not right that NCLB is to blame for this and he's not right that a focus on teaching kids, especially Black and Latino kids, the skills they need and have been historically denied, is an impediment to bringing deeper levels of learning to our school communities.

This article, and the phalanx of ed school kids who support its underlying argumentation, creates a systematic dichotomy where it does not exist. The NCLB false dichotomy argument states that teachers, schools, and districts face a choice between teaching either a bland, mind-numbing, soul-killing, love-of-learning-destroying curriculum of skill-based instruction, or a rich, multi-faceted, Duck-Dodgers-and-the-21st-and-a-half-century curriculum that fills up every fancy verb on the upper echelon of Bloom's Taxonomy. The NCLB false dichotomy argument further asserts that otherwise good, hard-working, whole-child-supporting folks are being forced to choose the former or face all kinds of of big badness.

This argument doesn't hold water for any number of reasons: pre-2002 teachers didn't like curriculum either; there never has been a so-called "gold standard" in education, much less one "drive(n) out" by a commitment to standardized measures of achievement; more kids learned less in the past than now; not to mention the widespread post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning in terms of how teachers, schools, and districts choose to respond to the federal mandate to ensure that at least 1/3 of kids should know some stuff.

The NCLB false dichotomy argument persists because it's appealing, easy to learn and repeat, and confuses a systematic dichotomy with an individual one. An enriched curriculum filled with electives, school 2.0 technologies, and 21st century skills ought to be set-up as pay-off for demonstrating mastery of all those basic skills so many folks work so long and hard to instill. We should establish basic skills as the necessary pre-requisites for the further avenues of study we all acknowledge as so very critical -- you know, yearbook, dioramas, and the french horn. The choice, then, is one faced by the individual, and determined by the individual's progress, and results in a tiered system of education, where students receive instruction geared toward their academic profile. This is also known as teaching kids what they need, and it's something more of us should do.

[Cue: Teacher, with hands clasped, making the argument that kids who struggle in school are the kids who most need electives like wood shop, which is the only class they are "good in."
To which I respond: Bullshit. Kids who struggle in school need more help in school, not classes designed to make them forget that they aren't good in school. To the extent that these kids exhibit negative behaviors, the behaviors in question are derived from the negative feeling that comes from being bad at school, feelings which will not be changed by making a bird house. Low-achieving kids are helped by receiving the kind of instruction that causes them to no longer be low-achievers.]

Ultimately, Cody's claim that a commitment to basic skill acquisition takes priority over developing "deeper learning," isn't wrong. No one except the strawmen of the world deny more is better, single measures are problematic, and rigid, binary conditions of pass-fail are incomplete, at best. Cody leaves terra firma, however when he starts applying causation where none exists, and when he asserts that we should be worried about what we paint on the bow of the boat before fixing the leaks in the hull. This is all a matter of prioritizing, and ending a denial of appropriate education comes first. The brothers Wright preceded Neil Armstrong, The Ramones preceded Green Day, and the commitment to develop an educational system that ensures kids gain the type of skills that makes all future learning possible must necessarily precede the nebulous "gold-standard" I don't feel the least bit guilty for not embracing.


Blogger ms. v. said...

I hear you on most of this, but I am not at all convinced that one must FIRST master only reading and math in order to "earn" the privilege of things like science, history, music, and art. Sorry, but no. That's just closing one gap to create another down the line. Perhaps I'm too idealistic, while you're dealing with the cold hard reality of what's possible, but I won't be satisfied until a program is created that closes the first, most important gap, without widening the second, just slightly less important gap.

6:55 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Ms. V.

I'm with you completely on Science and History. No question, no doubt. Music and art less so, for a variety of reasons:

1) I think the life-change quality of these courses is vastly over-rated. Not of art and music in and of themselves, but of the courses called art and music.

2) The more access one gains to information (especially through technology) the less one needs a central school structure to provide this access. The converse is not true with regard to reading and math.

3) We're talking about restricting access, and widening a gap for a profile of student that is drastically and ridiculously behind. We're talking about prioritizing graduation over typing. I'm really okay with that. We work for the day when we don't have to make choices like these, but until that day, we need to think critically about future outcomes for kids, and what they need to be successful and happy.

8:32 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

It's not a question of first mastering reading and math, but a question of taking the time to remediate all math and reading needed for these to catch-up. This is going to require teaching quite a bit more than a single year's worth of material to a child that likely has never shown the ability to learn a year's worth of material in any given year. This remediation is going to take extra time, I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine where this extra time is going to come from.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

" Cody leaves terra firma, however when he starts applying causation where none exists..."

This is where being a long-time teaching veteran is (surprise!) quite helpful: we actually remember what schools and learning were like through multiple decades. NCLB has most definitely re-shaped--caused an overhaul in--all kinds of educational practice, for better or worse. For one thing, there's a ton of evidence (usually researched and put forth by conservative policy houses) on the lower learning standards that states have had to adopt to keep themselves from sinking like rocks under "adequate yearly progress" requirements. Or the changes in state assessments, made necessary by NCLB, that negate good work done in the 90s on hands-on performance assessments and constructed responses. NCLB is the classic case of intent not matching result in policy making.

Nobody is suggesting that enriched curriculum doesn't require knowing how to read first. Only that learning to read fluently becomes much more relevant and useful when there's something interesting and worthwhile TO read--and do with what you've read, following.

Paraphrasing Phil Schlechty, who has spent a lifetime working on worthwhile curriculum: "If things keep going the way they are in education, one day advantaged students will be in private schools learning how to write poetry, and disadvantaged students will be in public schools learning how to write a paragraph about poetry."

This is more than "ed-school" jive, my friend (and falling back on criticisms of veteran and traditionally prepared teachers really weakens your argument). It's about democratic equality. It's true that your students should have learned to read in first grade. Ask yourself why they didn't, really. Ask yourself if testing them on basics, beginning in third grade, and pounding away on those worksheets will help solve this problem, really.

As for your remarks on art and music and prioritizing curriculum, I want to know when that day will come when testing and penalties produce learning gains across the board that will permit underserved students the "opportunity" to take classes that should be their birthright. When?

11:27 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Nancy,

"Nobody is suggesting that enriched curriculum doesn't require knowing how to read first. Only that learning to read fluently becomes much more relevant and useful when there's something interesting and worthwhile TO read--and do with what you've read, following."

Well and good. I'm not suggesting that the quality of reading material found in many state- and district-mandated is high quality. Where I pull the cord and get off the bus is when we're supposed to make higher priorities out of Bloom's verbs when so many kids, so many Black and Latino kids, aren't being taught appropriately at the level of non-sexy achievement. I'll fix the transmission before I buy new rims.

"It's true that your students should have learned to read in first grade. Ask yourself why they didn't, really."

1) Low-quality instruction
2) Low-quality school environments
3) Inappropriately structured academic environments
4) Unclear, ineffectual, and oftentimes absent programs for remediation.

"Ask yourself if testing them on basics, beginning in third grade, and pounding away on those worksheets will help solve this problem, really."

Setting up the choice between endless worksheets and Bloom's verbs is again part-and-parcel of the NCLB false dichotomy argument. No where did I suggest that worksheets will solve our problems, that test prep replaces teaching, or that a skill-based program that teaches for mastery and is response to students' level of academic readiness must necessarily be the monster I keep hearing about.

As for your assertion that the phrase "ed school kids" is anything other than a pointed reminder that the job looks different once you're doing it, I don't know what to tell you. Nor do I know how to repond to claims that I was criticizing veteran teachers or promoting the theft of birthrights.

This is about where you prioritize reform efforts, and how you structure academic opportunities for kids who didn't, haven't, and aren't learning. If I seem to come down hard on the bassoon, it's just that the positive benefits of its play have been elevated beyond all reasonable relationship to reality, at the expense of the acceptance of committing to bringing the teaching to the kids, where they are, and what they need. This isn't a manifesto for the ages, but rather one for the crisis. If that means some kids write poetry while others write about poetry, I can live with that in the short run, provided the latter group can actually read the poem and accurately write about it.

Right now they can't.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Chelle said...


I really disagree with you on this one. As a primary teacher (grades K-3) I have found that the most effective way to teacher children to read is through music. If you look at all of the research data from Reading First you will discover that phonemic awareness is the bedrock for reading, without good listening and auditory awareness of sounds and how they fit together in language, students are unable to effectively move into phonics, writing and comprehension. Phonemic awareness involves things like onset and rime and the best examples of this are nursery rhymes. There is also a lot of good research available about brain development and how music facilitates learning. Much of your blog shows how important music is to your world view - watch that finger pointing at those who disagree with you. And BTW - Stiff Little Fingers are a much more interesting band than the Ramones - go back and dig a little deeper.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Nancy Flanagan said...

[Nancy] "It's true that your students should have learned to read in first grade. Ask yourself why they didn't, really."

1) Low-quality instruction
2) Low-quality school environments
3) Inappropriately structured academic environments
4) Unclear, ineffectual, and oftentimes absent programs for remediation.

Well. If students aren't learning to read on a reasonable timetable, then we need to start that enriched, high-challenge instruction a whole lot earlier, don't we? Before there's a need for across-the-board remediation? So the kids can take Chemistry, Psychology and Creative Writing when they get to high school? So they can have some real opportunity in their lives, instead of being consigned to basic-skills jobs?

I'm not sure, exactly, what your definitions of "low-quality" instruction or school environments are, but I can't think of anything in NCLB that will fix those, especially if "high-quality" school environments include lots of motivated and innovative teaching.

Look, TMAO, I give you big points for being a great thinker, and for remaining in the classroom when others have fled. You don't blame the kids for the failings of the system, either, a critical point. But scapegoating schools and teachers wholesale, consigning those without resources or access to a life of "basics," then justifying it through legislation and testing is (as Anthony Cody points out) ultimately counter-productive.

This isn't about you and your students--it's about federal policy leading us down the wrong path, and political opposition to "Ed School Kids" using equally hackneyed, even insulting, arguments about "what kids like that really need" and "dumb teachers."

BTW, I think Bloom's taxonomy is misinterpreted and often used in defense of some pretty crummy teaching. And--I agree with your assertion lots of conventional music courses aren't worth spit. I'll let chelle defend effective use of music in reading instruction, but point out that creating hierarchies of disciplinary subjects is dangerous business. The goal is to figure out where interest and aptitude converge.

4:51 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


There's a difference between using music and teaching kids to be musicians. I'm down with the former, and I'm even down with the latter, provided the circumstances are right.

As for the SLF, I'm well versed, and my vinyl copy of Inflammable Material is well-spun. I reject the High Fidelity sponsored tale of them influencing Green Day, and I reject the later work, which is just hair metal. And terrible.


Please don't confuse my refusal to blame NCLB for what ails us, with a whole-hearted support of its provisions. They are not one and they same.

I'm saying there's nothing in NCLB that justifies the outrage. We've been seeing a great deal of naked lunch lately, and it's rough when you discover you don't like the taste of your own cooking. I'm saying we need to do better, and we need to go back to first principles and expand outward.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz from I Speak of Dreams. More discussion over at Joanne Jacob's blog on a parallel issue. I quoted this post, and Joanne promoted to the body of the post.

12:24 PM  
Blogger AnthonyCody said...

I never suggested there was a time when high quality instruction and assessment were the order of the day. I said it was our responsibility as educators to offer a *new* gold standard in assessment, to replace the narrow measurements used by NCLB.

Second, there are real choices being made by entire schools that affect every child in them -- so this is a real dichotomy. Right now those choices are being driven by the fear of schools being dismantled, and teachers losing their jobs. I am not sure why you ridicule this fear. I find it quite palpable, and a number of schools in my area have been closed down in recent years. The choices I am seeing made are to mandate two and a half hours of scripted reading curriculum a day, and an hour and a half of math. If there is a minimum day in the week and you can’t fit these four hours in, then you are told to use Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. So science and history and PE are given about an hour on Friday afternoons. I happen to feel that students learn to explore for themselves through hands-on science. I think vocabulary, reading and writing are much richer when taught in the context of a vigorous investigation of nature. But we have deciders in our state and district, fearful of low test scores, who are not allowing teachers that option.

I do not want to let educators off the hook. The point of my column was to push for greater definition of meaningful assessments, so the public at large understands that there are ways to measure student learning that are richer than the bubble tests we take every spring. I feel this is a rich avenue of growth for our profession, with huge promises for actually improving learning. But this whole arena has been starved as resources have been poured into standardized testing.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am with ms. v. I am tickled to death to hear a teacher think deeply (by comparison) on what is and is not a result of NCLB. It's hard to argue lowered standards when there were none before.

But I do believe in the need for both bread and roses. I can certainly cite my one child's experience in what was a very good school that linked music to mathematics (patterns, fractions, numbers, counting). But more than than that has been my experience with my special education student. First he was moved to the "resource room" (worksheet city) until he was "ready" to handle content in the regular ed room (hard to catch up when you are moving slower). Then he was move to behavioral education--where his LD was forgotten in the push to teach him to act right (in a room full of other kids who didn't know how either). Now he had two hurdles. And the nature of his disability was that some days he was available to learn, other days not (and generally the days that he was available he was being punished for something he had done on another day).

Now, these people really called themselves focusing on the basics so he could "move on" to the other things. However, after many years, his behavior is very socially acceptable, but he knows little math (not that there weren't people walking him through worksheets), and doesn't read well for content unless he is really interested.

He finally has some access to the arts, and I regret all the years that he was denied the opportunity to "do something right." Not only would it have provided him with some internal support (knowing that he is able to learn)--but could have been such a vehicle for learning in other areas. He loves performing and he's good at it. What an incentive to read!

My biggest gripe with the dichotomy is that is it such a shoot yourself in the foot strategy. If we don't race kids through these worksheets and "expose" them to the whole curriculum they won't pass the test and the world will end. Problem is, it doesn't work. The schools that have invested heavily in test prep books and keeping everychild on the same worksheet every day ARE NOT the ones that are succeeding. They are the ones where morale stinks, test scores barely creep forward and everyone blames the principal, superintendent, school board, state board, NCLB, Congress, the President, parents and the Grinch for why teaching is no fun any more.

Not only is balance better than obsession, but it is healthier and a better learning environment.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear TMAO,

I'm a teacher at EXCEL H.S. and met you while you were OTF-ing it there--I'm the room to the left of your home base, and I was constantly in my classroom during the summer.

I didn't know you were TMAO until recently, otherwise I would have picked your brain.

Okay, here's the deal, and, after that introduction, this is, in actuality, a request for help.

You talk about 3-in-1. How do you do that?

I have a class of all boys--seniors--who read around the 3, 4, 5, 6th grade.

We've been reading The Pact, and they're digging it. They pair-share read. I come around and read with them as they're pair-sharing. They do dialectical journal entries. They're writing their personal statements. They analyzed a model personal statement.

These boys are, many of them, going to go on to college.

They read "interrupted" as "interpreted," "apparatus" as "apart-tus," "sundry" as "sun-dry"...

How do I do 3-in-1? What are your best practices?


10:00 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hey Excel-teacher-I-briefly-met,

Why don't you email me and we can talk. teachingmyassoff [at] hotmail [dot] com

7:04 PM  
Anonymous jon said...

i am trying to understand your position on teaching and learning. i have read your post three times...maybe i'm a slow learner....or just too old. having taught in only title I schools, i am well aware of the the inconsistent treatment of our at risk children. however, having worked with urban schools that are being forced to follow prescribed texts in order to meet ayp, i am dismayed at this type of instruction.....the children may be able to pass a test.....but they are not becoming readers and/or mathematicians....let alone life-long learners. our children deserve better...what do you propose that we do?

7:36 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Jon,

Surely they deserve better. It's not been my experience that there exists a mutual exclusivity between kids who pass test and kids who learn. One tends to go with the other. I'm not sure how that works otherwise. What programs are these?

I propose kids receive instruction that is rich, nuanced, effective, and begins at exactly that point dictated by a young person's academic readiness, and precedes in a rigorous manner. My point here and elsewhere is that a federal mandate to test ought not effect our ability to accomplish this. In the event that we don't accomplish this, I'll point to poor decisions, poor school leaders, poor district leadership, and poor instruction before I'll go blame 617 pages of federal law. I didn't start teaching until 2002, but my guess is prescribed texts were in widespread use before that. Y'know what I mean?

We need to teach better, reach kids better, structure our schools better. Specifically, I think we need longer school days, teachers trained specifically for the rigors of high-need urban ed, flexible grouping by student readiness, better use of data, better daily classroom instruction, and a commitment to widespread enrichment outside the traditional school day. None of waste our time on the dubious evils of NCLB.

8:49 PM  
Blogger leyla said...


1) Low-quality instruction
2) Low-quality school environments
3) Inappropriately structured academic environments
4) Unclear, ineffectual, and oftentimes absent programs for remediation.>>

you don't think difficulties in reading have ANYTHING to do with how literacy was explored or promoted at home?

that's crazy talk!


11:44 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Leyla,

Sure, sure. But I have a tiny, tiny ability to control that. The same is not true of those other factors, so I let the serenity prayer guide my thinking.

How ya doing?

11:49 AM  
Blogger leyla said...

i'm good. teaching in a public school in san francisco. i love it!
great kids. i had the opportunity to move with them (from 7th to 8th). it's a great opportunity.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I won't be satisfied until a program is created that closes the first, most important gap,
without widening the second, just slightly less important gap.

6:37 AM  

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