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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Can Character Education and the First Amendment Co-Exist?

Stripped of its specific movement or leaders, character education in its greater sense is almost impossible to extricate from public school education. Whether we expect to for it to be the case or not, the process of group education provides learners with models (for good and for ill) of different ways of caring, mentoring, and social interaction. That comprises character education, largely of the unintentional variety.

When character education is left wholly to chance (unintentional and unprincipled), then some families will choose parochial schools or homeschooling in order to counteract “godlessness” and “lack of values” in the schools. However, when character education is implemented (intentional and principled), then other families will choose parochial or non-sectarian schools or homeschooling in order to redress grievances related to anti-religious or liberal “substitute theologies” introduced by character education. Some families go further and bring lawsuits, on First Amendment grounds, that certain types of Character Education programs separate the separation of Church and State.

There have already been examples of Character Education efforts that provoked lawsuits. One was brought a couple of years ago in Ohio. A health and human ecology teacher instructed students to deal with stress through guided meditation. The family objected, stating that such practices interfered with their religious guidance of the pupil. The family sued successfully to terminate the curriculum, on First Amendment grounds.

Below I have pulled some bulleted points from a lecture about what teachers and schools practicing Character Education should do. It appears to me that some practices are no different from what al teachers do, all the time. Others may be acceptable, provided the “content” and “context” are right. But others, given the right mix of students, parents, and conditions, could start a “church-and-state” fire!

Individual Teachers who provide Character Education are called upon to
• Act as a caregiver, model, and mentor
• Create a moral community
• Practice moral discipline
• Create a democratic classroom environment
• Teach values through the curriculum
• Use cooperative learning
• Develop the conscience of craft
• Encourage moral reflection
• Teach conflict resolution

Entire schools committed to Character Education are tasked with other tasks:
• Fostering caring beyond the classroom
• Creating a positive moral culture in the school
• Recruit parents and the community as partners

I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that not all of those activities will pass the Lemon test, at least not for all students in all schools in all locations!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The New Civil Rights Battle

"I believe public education is the new civil rights battle and I support charter schools."
Andrew Cuomo

Since his opponent looks like The Count from Sesame Street and has a hard time speaking without putting his foot in his mouth, it seems the prediction polls may for once be right. Our soon-to-be-guv appears to luv the Charter School movement.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages from the national scene:

Advantage: Charters increase options for families and educators. Charter Schools create new options for families and educators who are dissatisfied with the status quo. In the past, families could choose public school, private school, or homeschooling. Now, in some locales, there is also the option of a charter school. Charters provide many of the same perceived advantages as private schools, such as increased flexibility in hiring; smaller class sizes; exemption form many of the curricular orthodoxies that are de rigueur in public schools in a given City or State, while accomplishing these tasks mostly at taxpayer expense (Charter schools cannot use taxpayer money to fund their buildings and grounds). With the advent of Charter Schools, families who wish for something different from the local home zone school who are fortunate enough to have a Charter as an option, can elect to enroll their child without out-of-pocket tuition expenses.

Advantage: Charters are a lab to try out new methods of compensation and personnel evaluation. While many Charter Schools have been criticized for lacking the teachers’ contracts, salaries, and union protections endemic to public school systems, some Charters have found ways to implement handsome salary schedules and to avoid rule-based systems of performance appraisal, rank and tenure decisions, and the like, creating truly innovative personnel programs (

Disadvantage: Charters create questions about efficacy when comparisons are made between non-equivalent groups. Some of the “best” reasons to initiate a request for a charter is to create an “academy of excellence,” or to serve “at-risk” or disadvantaged students. Perhaps because Charters are started with so many varied purposes in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that researchers are finding mixed results as to whether students at Charter Schools actually do outperform their peers at standard public schools ( The lead author of the report described findings both on the whole (broad-based result: no discernible difference between achievement from charter schools vs. public school) and in specific: charter schools in large urban areas and those serving a more disadvantaged student population had positive impacts on students' achievement in math (

Disadvantage: Charters instigate a fear of a “brain drain” in the public schools. Charter school and voucher programs are similar in that both types of programs allocate some public funding to non-public schools. In both types of programs, some students and some teachers who might otherwise participate in public school settings will instead participate in private school settings. When the dust settles from lawsuits brought by parties interested in how the State spends Taxpayer money, a parity question remains: do Charter Schools (and, for that matter, do private, parochial, and other non-public schools) pose a “brain-drain” threat to adult and child talent within the public schools? The answer is probably yes. But in a free and fair democratic society, is it really better to eliminate the threat as posed by the Charters, Vouchers, and other institutions, our would it perhaps be better to allow the situation to be educative to the public schools? Let’s use the “flight” as data as to what is wrong in the system, and fix the problems there, rather than stomp on the alternatives. We can call it free market capitalist education.