Friday, February 24, 2012

Make Way for the Blonde Toddler in Work Boots

One of the most treasured family snapshots that survives my early years captured a moment when I tried on Daddy’s work boots. My wavy blonde hair goes every-which-way, and although I am facing away from the camera, I suspect that the look on my face would have been one of determination, as I hauled myself across the floor of the shop in that pair of heavy work boots. My little hands hold tight to the tops of the boots, the better to pull myself up by the bootstraps; and the toe of one boot points forward, in my direction of travel, while the toe of the other boot points backwards, trailing behind me. My feet were so small that they couldn’t hold the boot straight.

Although in all honesty, I don’t have any independent memory of wearing my father’s boots, I am told that this was a favorite childhood game of mine. Part of the retelling of this particular idiosyncrasy of my play is that it was common for the adults watching me “walk a mile” in my parents’ shoes to ask me what I was doing.

“Goin’ to work!” I would state. Not proudly, not with any particular passion. Just the facts.

The real fun would begin when the adult asked what I did for work. Again, I really don’t remember this for myself. However, the family stories have been passed down that my responses varied wildly on this point.

At times I said: “I’m a post-secondaaawwwy Engwish teacher!” (Of course. At the time, Mom was teaching English courses for the local business college at the local maximum-security prison, so why not?)

Other times, I declared: “Got to get to the mine for an unannounced safety inspection.” (No surprise here. At the time, Dad was putting his electrical engineering savvy to the test by laying methane detectors in “gassy” mines, interpreting their results, and reporting to mine operators the findings, sort of in-house MSHA equivalent.)

Other times, the answer was: “She’s dropping her calf and it’s forty below!” (Hey, when you live on a farm, you live on a farm.)

Times have changed and now when I choose my shoes for work, they fit my own feet and the toes point the right direction. I put the shoes on the correct feet, every time, and no longer do the toes point behind me. It’s been a long time since I had to pull on the tops of the boots to drag them with both arm power and leg power. On most days, the footwear I choose are usually not boots but shoes. At the moment, not a single pair has steel toes.

As the times have changed, however, two things haven’t.

When I am putting on my shoes, if someone asks what I’m doing, the first answer I’m likely to give is still: “Goin’ to work.” The other thing that still has not changed is that the type of work I do still depends on the day. Most days, I serve as a behavior analyst and as an administrator. Then there are the days that I use the skills I learned as a biology teacher, a special educator, a grip or a gaff. To this day, I remain a Jane-of-All-Trades.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The "evidence" in evidence-based decision making with High Stakes Testing

High Stakes Testing provides the opportunity for data-based decision making. The question is: will doing so be an opportunity for a "garbage in, garbage out" process, or for true "evidence-based practice?"

Advantages of High Stakes Testing:
At the individual student level, one little-discussed advantage to high-stakes testing is that appropriately calibrated and normed tests can give data that validate grades earned. This would end the dilemma faced by students with high grades from poorly-achieving schools. Students presently enrolled in schools like New York City’s John Dewey High School face challenges in applying to prestigious colleges: admissions counselors can say: “Sure, you have a high GPA, but it’s from a school under registration review. What does it mean?” If that grade is accompanied by a set of correspondingly high scores on achievement tests, it’s clear that the student’s grades are reflective of earned accomplishment.

At the school building level, the use of data from high stakes testing (and other assessments) can clear the path for educational leaders to change students’ experiences to alternate modes of education (for example to an in-school tutoring model, to different materials, or to Direct Instruction curricula) so that they no longer have to repeat an experience that was already measurably ineffective for them. This use of test data can help solve a “culture problem” in education today: the rift between philosophy and outcomes. Doing what is right for children isn’t always easy in education because we are in a field with many stakeholders, and each group tends to hold disparate philosophies of education. It seems that many sub-groups, by dint of previous training and orthodoxy, are equally assured that their way of providing education is the “one true way.”

Disadvantages of High Stakes Testing:
At all levels, just because a decision is “data-driven” doesn’t mean that it is correct. Knowledge may be power, but power corrupts; and the absolute power that corrupts absolutely probably had its case argued by mis-analyzed or frankly manipulated data. In some localities, administrators and school boards use aggregated performance data to make wrongheaded decisions; take for just one example the article’s report that in Texas low-performing schools are bolstered with additional financial support and rarely closed. In some fields, such an arrangement would be called “anti-merit pay.”

Finally, from a personal level, an observation that data from a poorly constructed or badly normed test may be worse than no data at all. I was a member of the cohort of students that was in the fourth year of Ohio Ninth-Grade Proficiency Tests (now being phased out) and the first year of Ohio Twelfth-Grade Proficiency Tests. My Ninth Grade proficiency tests were not a problem at all. As a daughter of one of the high school faculty members, it was expected that I performed well in high school. In fact, I represented the school in statewide comparisons by taking “Scholarship Tests” each year. When my results came in for the Twelfth Grade tests, imagine my surprise to learn that I had “pegged” all the other subtests, yet failed Reading Comprehension. To this day, I have no explanation for this spurious result. Was the test faulty? Was the wrong key used to score my test? Did anybody in the school pass? Was I “one bubble off” in my response sheet? Don’t know, don’t care, glad it didn’t count, except for the fact that my high school diploma did not have an extra sticker indicating that I passed those Twelfth Grade tests. Who knows what became of other “star students” who came in the next cohort for whom that subtest was a requirement, and not a pilot project. It could have been a disaster, and in that place at that time, I’m personally very glad the State of Ohio was NOT “playing for keeps.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Multiculturalism - an "ism" of Education?

Racism. Sexism. Elitism. Generally, it’s not good to have an “ism.” I know when and how I caught my case of Multiculturalism, and it has given me discomfort ever since. In the late 1990s, when I was an undergraduate student, the college I attended overhauled its core curriculum. Suddenly, we had Themes around which to choose core and elective classes. The Themes were intended to be somehow universal for all majors and minors, transcendent; perhaps we accepted them as beyond reproach or debate. I don’t really remember. In fact, the reform effort was such a smashing success that I not only can I not name all the Themes that the Educational Policies Committee worked so hard to craft. Whether the effort was futile or not, we will never know; the entire college shuttered its campus within the decade.

What I do remember, however, was that one Theme among the others was the hardest around which to create consensus and the hardest to defend. That Theme, I recall with a shake of the head, was “Globalism & Diversity.” Discussions about globalism and diversity, infused throughout the curriculum, were meant to create a multicultural appreciation that would aid in creating honorable behavior from all students, from those with Peace Studies minors to business students to educators. The problem with using Globalism & Diversity as a curricular theme was that talking about diversity is similar to talking about the weather: most people agree on the facts; many people disagree about the interpretation; and just about nobody does anything about it.

And talking about Globalism? Forget about it. Nobody could determine then (and few can now) whether increasing globalization is a net good or a net ill for our own society, let alone the world’s. The recommendations were endless and usually contradictory. Embrace free trade and a liberal import/export policy; no, wait – demand that your goods are made by people making a living wage and using ecologically sustainable practices. Assist developing countries to have a Green Revolution; no, wait – enjoy only local, organic foods. Who knew? Who knows?

Perhaps the problem is that the College was ahead of its time. The World Trade Center tragedy of 2001 demonstrated far too realistically how very real and present the impacts of globalism were. And although we did not know it then, and we still may not yet fully appreciate what to do about it, we are coming to understand events such as those terrorist attacks as having come from under-appreciation of diversity.
Slightly uneasy with “multicultural” efforts for years, I was not quite sure what bothered me about the Globalism & Diversity Theme until quite a bit later. After graduate school and after having taught in and left the NYC public schools, I picked up Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which by 2005 presented a detailed if not succinct account of the enormity of the changes in the world and the aftermath of globalization.

Finally, I realized that my discomfort with most discussions of diversity came from education efforts that were well-intentioned but involved a severe push-pull between cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation.

"Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held (Wikipedia).

UUA Task Force on Cultural Misappropriation:
“Cultural misappropriation is the term given to the set of injuries marked by:
- using music, reading, symbols, ritual, or iconography of a group without a willingness to engage in their struggle and/or story and connecting their struggle and/or story with our own
- the use of cultural practices as bait rather than an as organic part of our cultural experience
- an unwillingness to respect the community of origin or dishonoring the refusal of a community to share
- disrespect or casual engagement with a practice, or
- unwillingness to share the pain caused by intentional or unintentional misuse.”

It seems to me that teaching tolerance, inquisitiveness, and respect for one another is the true ultimate goal of multicultural education. Unfortunately, however, it has been my uncomfortable experience that many attempts at “multicultural education” inadvertently injure the parties that they were meant to include. Particularly when there is no representative from the “diverse” culture available to participate in the planning of an event, clumsy attempts at “celebration” more closely resemble cultural misappropriation than integration. In this situation, the notion that symbols and practices “take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held” is especially true. If the United States is still a “melting pot,” then certainly it is also a crucible; let us hope that we continue to refine our skills at multicultural education, even as we praise those uncomfortable efforts.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Notes from the Headmistress of the School for the Literally Minded

A friend of mine once said: "There are some things that do not need to be said, but are better said than not said." Along those same lines, here are some notes on technical writing that I recently found occasion to pass along to some graduate students in behavior analysis.

1. What does 2.6 years mean? It probably means 2.5 years – 2 years, 6 months.

2. An AV is not the same thing as an SD.

3. The use of an AV is sometimes inadvisable because it may, in fact, become an SD; e.g., tact and textual responding programs.

4. Learn Units may be used as a Dependent Variable, but when used to change behavior, then they are likely to be an Independent Variable.

5. A “directive” and a “direction” are not exactly the same things.

6. Prompts and error corrections are not exactly the same things.

7. Beware partial-echoic or phonetic prompts.

8. Meeting criterion for a short term objective is not exactly the same as achieving MASTERY.

9. Good titles contain an IV and a DV and would be helpful for somebody looking for your article if they searched for it in JABA.

10. For short papers, the Review of Literature is best when it is short and sweet.

11. Method sections should differentiate between procedures for data collection and the research design, which is a set of procedures for data evaluation.

12. When reporting data in percent, also report the number of items in the sets from which percents were derived.

13. The verb “look” is not usually correct when discussing research methods, unless one has employed a magnifying glass, a microscope, or some other means of direct observation.

14. Avoid the “implied future” tense (Will+Verb) unless implicating the future is what is desirable (e.g., within a goal statement).

15. “Punctuation,” she said, “generally goes inside quotes.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Inclusion: Non-Trivial Responses to Non-Trivial Questions

Staring at me from a blank screen were two questions:

1) Do Inclusion classes impact positively on the educational achievement and social development of children with disabilities?
2) What are the implications for students without disabilities in inclusion classes?

And as I stared back, also blankly, my first thought was to write two, one-word replies.

1) Sometimes.
2) Many.

Not sure if my response was the right vein of humor for the venue, I discarded the first thought and wrote from the second thought that came to mind. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether the trivial answer sufficed, or whether the expansion was, indeed, an improvement.

On the large scale, these are both "it depends" questions. Inclusion as a solution to special education ignites philosophical debates in many schools of education; is the topic of ongoing Federal lawsuits; and is a relatively under-studied area in the research literature on educational outcomes.

Inclusion classes may or may not impact positively on the educational achievement and social development of children with disabilities. As others have noted, success or failure of an inclusion effort has largely to do with the number, type and severity of disabilities of the “children with disabilities” in question. The same goes for the size of the class and its resources, and let’s not forget the interpersonal and teaching effectiveness of the teachers in the inclusion class in question. The students without disabilities in the inclusion class could benefit greatly from exposure to additional resources, mentoring, and coaching; or they could be endlessly distracted by medical, behavioral, and crisis interventions required for their disabled peers’ sustenance.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) creates statutory rights for students with disabilities that are somewhat different from rights of children without disabilities. These statutory rights may appear at times to be at least partly contradictory with one another, and certainly create tension within the education system. Specifically, under IDEA, children with disabilities ages 3-21 are entitled to a free, appropriate education that BOTH confers “meaningful educational benefit” AND is conducted in the “least restrictive environment” practical.

For years, the rallying cry of special educators who preferred increasingly inclusive practices was, “Special Education is a SERVICE, not a PLACE.” The idea was that instructional practices that could be moved into classrooms, should be moved to classrooms, and learners who could benefit from the general education curriculum with supports, should do so. This makes sense on a number of levels.

Presently, a very popular approach to providing free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities is to declare a district a “full inclusion” or “total integration” setting. This type of approach minimizes the chance that a district will be cited by the federal or state regulatory auditors for spending an inordinate proportion of funds on a small number of self-contained special education classrooms or for over-identification of minority students as having disabilities.

While “full inclusion” as a district policy indeed achieves the goal of minimizing broad, population-based scrutiny, it also tends to increase the chances of individual families, particularly well-funded, highly-educated families, bringing lawsuits. The difficulty with supporting only one type of educational environment for all students with disabilities is that not all needs are best met in one setting.

Federal courts have held that the question of service delivery location (i.e., inclusion setting vs. special class setting) is secondary to the question of whether the child makes substantial educational progress. In one case, Federal Courts have upheld a family’s argument that their child had a right to full inclusion (K. B. vs. Nebo, 2004; U. S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals). In a different case, a different Circuit upheld the District’s petition to move a child from inclusion to a special class, when the child was not making progress in an inclusion setting (Hartmann vs. Loudoun County Board of Education, 1997; U. S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals).

Banerji and Dailey (1995) conducted a study of children in grades 2-5 with specific learning disabilities. They found that both nondisabled and learning-disabled children made gains of about one year’s academic achievement in an inclusive setting. Teachers, children with and without disabilities, and parents all had high praise for the model, indicating that the social acceptability of an inclusive special education model is excellent.

As pleased as the authors and the participants were with the findings, it gives me pause that the educational outcomes were what they were. Joe Torgesen has long maintained that “special education as per usual” for reading disabilities (arguably the most common affliction in American education today) is not effective enough – without special education, students stop progressing; once special education is implemented, students begin making about a year’s progress in a year’s time, but they never “close the gap.” Without explicit, systematic instruction in phonetics and orthography, rate- and phonics- disabled readers do not ever read on grade level. Without opportunities for intensive instruction (which would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish in a “full inclusion” environment without any pull-out services), how will these students “close the gap”? They won’t.

If it seems virtually impossible to “close the gap” with “garden variety poor readers” in a full inclusion setting, then how will it ever be possible to remediate much more challenging problems, like oral-motor apraxia, traumatic brain injuries, and selective mutism in a fully inclusive classroom? Without even a hedge, I can predict: It won’t.

My fear is that very soon, instead of working for habilitative and normalizing educational outcomes for these students, the new goal will be that it is enough that these children are in the same classroom as their peers – but nobody cares what they learn. It will be the opposite problem as “warehousing.” Their needs will be hiding in plain sight.

So now, I wish to return to the idea that “special education is a SERVICE, not a PLACE.” Some services are intrusive, and are therefore best provided in a location that facilitates their delivery. If extra time or special materials are needed to provide specialized instruction, let us make those available to highly-trained instructors – let us not worry if their “place” is not a general education classroom.


Banerji, M., & Dailey, R. A. (1995). A study of the effects of an inclusion model on students with specific learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 511-522.

Kluth, P. (2003). You're going to love this kid: Teaching students with autism in the inclusive classroom. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Phantom Variables in Education - class size, for example

There is no doubt that one-to-one tutelage with a highly qualified instructor is a very effective way to learn something difficult. After all, there is no reason to believe that Plato’s education via the Socratic method took place among the rabble of the agora. When it comes time for graduate students to become polished researchers, they find one person to sponsor their dissertation and take leave of group classes until the hard work is finally done.

There is also very little doubt that those very small, prestigious schools with exalted reputations frequently tout those small class sizes associated with fine results. The question becomes, is it actually the size of the class that makes the educational experience high-quality? If it is the size of the class that matters, then why do efforts to reduce mean class size for larger schools tends not to impact test scores and metrics used to estimate disciplinary troubles?

My answer is that class SIZE is a phantom variable, one that is easy to measure but is irrelevant to most educational questions. Because counting the number of people in a room is easy to do, it is frequently done. It’s a metric that is used as a stand-in for educational quality, as a substitute for something more meaningful, something to do with the “amount of attention” each teacher can give to each student.

I have another “favorite” phantom variable, another common psychometric and educational distraction. It’s INSTRUCTIONAL TIME. Number of school days available, length of the school day, minutes assigned to each subject; these, too, are easy to measure and also substitute for something more meaningful, something to do with the “amount of instruction” the children can receive in total, or on each subject in the curriculum.

My contention is that, barring unsafe or ridiculous circumstances, class size can seldom be an actual barrier to instruction (notable exceptions being situations such as one teacher overseeing hundreds of students or children packed into spaces so that fire codes are violated); similarly, neither are questions of instructional time (except in exigencies such as those brought on by natural disasters, such as when Hurricane Katrina dramatically shortened the school year for children along the Gulf Coast).

What actually matters, and what is seldom measured directly, is HOW MUCH ACTUAL INSTRUCTION learners receive. Not hypothetical “attention” as a division of students-per-adult; not “time per subject matter.” How many interactions with the teacher occur? How many interactions with instructional materials occur? This is a very old-fashioned idea in education and in industry – it has variously been called “total quality management” and “behaviorism” and “evidence-based practice.”

What it looks like is smart students, working hard. They are engaged in “ASR” or active student responding. In a group lesson, the students may be participating simultaneously using choral responding, response cards, or guided notes. Individual students may be working at a computer that has a program that gives them many response opportunities with feedback; or they may be receiving tutoring from a peer or from an adult (e.g., classwide peer tutoring).

Are all of these tactics easier to do in a classroom with a favorable student-to-teacher ratio? Absolutely. Will the effectiveness of any instructional tactic that works be enhanced with additional time to deliver more of an effective educational practice? Certainly. But is the ACTUAL variable of interest the size of the class or the amount of time? Not the way I see it. The ACTUAL variable of interest is WHAT IS BEING DONE in that class, regardless of “for how long?” or “with how many students present?”

Perhaps the studies that fail to show systematic effects of reducing class size or increasing instructional time, have problems with their outcome variables because they failed to take into control for variability in WHAT THE TEACHERS ARE DOING in those classes of varying size and duration.

Archimedes famously said: “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world.” 220 BC

I think I know where I stand on measurement issues and research questions. What I don’t have is a lever (a pry-bar?) to move the world of educational administration & policy, so that the measured outcomes are variables that are actually relevant dimensions of the phenomena of interest. That Eureka moment has still not come, for me, or for American education.

Heward, W. L. (1994). Three "low-tech" strategies for increasing the frequency of Active Student Responding.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Homeschooling: Not endangering public education, and maybe not anybody else

Some say that homeschooling, on the increase nationwide, is a threat to free public education. I am confident that homeschooling presents less of a destabilizing threat to school systems as a whole than it does to individual children and their families who choose to homeschool. Within the population of families who choose to homeschool, there is sufficient diversity of motives for initiating homeschooling and support for the curriculum that it is probably impossible to judge the efficacy of “homeschooling” as an entity; each situation is different enough to merit individual scrutiny.

Having come to New York only after a childhood and adolescence in rural south-central Ohio (“Heard of the Bible Belt? Welcome to the Buckle!”), I have some experience on both sides of the homeschooling question. As a student of some of the most poverty-stricken rural public schools of the State of Ohio and the daughter of the freshman English teacher in the high school I attended, I observed first-hand as local families protested that local public schools do not meet their needs at all (Old Order Mennonite; Amish) or may be sufficient for college-preparation but do so only while also corrupting their youth terribly (conservative protestant Christianity). Many of these families elected to have their children stop school attendance altogether after middle school (through religious exception), or to continue middle and high school through homeschooling.

My parents’ college friends remained in the university town where they all met in southwest Ohio. A couple who was very close to them had a daughter six months older than me who is absolutely brilliant, funny, well-rounded, and a great mother: however, with a baby on the way of the last year of high school, college did not seem to be the next step for her. When I left to come to college in New York, she began parenting. That son, born into a highly-educated extended family and to a mother who herself did not attend college, rapidly showed himself to be the type of student that each teacher would successively either LOVE or DETEST. He is exceptional in every way: gifted intellectually, emotionally, mechanically, athletically. Small problem. He lives in Southwest Ohio. That’s something like the South Bronx of the Midwest. After a ruinous year of kindergarten in the public schools, the family realized that the public school system grade 4 or 5 would be more appropriate for him, but the children would be way too big. So they scraped together some money for the City's Christian Academy. That didn’t work out so well, either, as the liberal elite “farmers” (retired engineer, retired paralegal, all the various children and grandchildren) did not exactly share the values required for the City Christian Academy crowd. Next step? Homeschooling. My childhood friend, still not a college credit to her name, is by far a better natural talent at education, motherhood, and curriculum planning for her children than anything available to her, for her tax dollars or for hard-earned tuition. The children are thriving, and “peg” the top of the norms each year on the CTBS tests, required by the State of Ohio of the homeschooled students. Her motives are pure – a higher quality of education, without the knife-fights and drugs. The educators are “highly qualified,” despite what NCLB criteria they may lack: she has a retired engineer, a retired paralegal, herself, and her sister-in-law, an accountant, as day-to-day faculty, and my own sister (once-biologist-turned-truck-driver) as occasional faculty.

As a professional educator, I have also encountered home instruction scenarios in which the student is excluded from school education. Sometimes this is a school decision (for example, following expulsion), and the school provides home tutoring as compensatory education. I have also worked in homes providing instruction when students have had hospital stays and are not yet cleared to return to school. These are not properly classified as “homeschooling” as the families have not elected to run the curriculum themselves, and professional educators are being provided at public expense. In these situations, the learners themselves typically complain that they are “losing all their friends” and that they no longer “feel normal.” This can be heart-wrenching.

As disturbing as the children’s complaints are, short-term exclusions from school, whether for medical or discipline reasons, are not nearly so tragic as homeschooling situations in which the children and the person responsible for the instruction do not assent to or be prepared to provide the homeschooling. As a behavior consultant, I have from time to time had calls from concerned friends and even service providers regarding home schooling situations in which it appears that one parent (in most cases the father, but sometimes the mother) wishes for the children to be homeschooled, while the other parent prefers public or private education at a school. It appears that in this type of situation, the questions may be more serious than quality of instruction provided. Because one of the functions of a modern school is social connection among learners, it is conceivable that children who are homeschooled may have fewer opportunities to connect with sympathetic adults, and if there are questions that concern them, they may have fewer ways to reach out for help in coping with life’s problems.

Finally, a concern about detecting problems in time to correct them: Since compulsory school attendance only specifies that some schooling will be provided, and homeschooling can count as attendance, there may be very little cause for intervention unless or until a serious problem is detected. Given the baseline rate of learning and emotional troubles among children in general, it seems that one of the biggest consequences for children leaving the public schools would be that they will usually miss all screening efforts to find and treat learning disabilities, emotional troubles, or even medical issues routinely tested for in public schools. Leaving these challenges undetected and untreated while in the hands of untrained and possibly unhappy teachers may mean preventable damage coming to individual children.