The Death Knoll for the Bell Curve

In 2004, as a fairly new teacher, I sat in a room and listened to district leaders explain President Bush’s plan to improve education—the now defunct, but then new law—No Child Left Behind.  They put some charts up on a screen and explained that by 2014, 100% of America’s children were expected to reach proficiency in reading and math.

I remember thinking at the time that President Bush was insane and had no clue about mathematics.  Hadn’t he ever heard of the bell curve?  Didn’t he know that it was impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency?

We have always had winners and losers in American schools.  I did not see how just setting a goal for 100% proficiency would be able to change that paradigm or change the ways our schools were operating.  

I left that meeting feeling depressed about the future of education.  I was deeply afraid that pushing for better test scores was not just impossible, but likely to cause extreme damage to the way that schools worked.  I envisioned a narrowing of the curriculum and a move towards “teaching to the test”.  I envisioned shaming of teachers who were working with some of the toughest kids in some of the toughest schools.

Those who have been involved in education since 2004 will know that a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test did indeed occur in many American schools.  In fact, some schools resorted to cheating as a response to high stakes testing.  Many districts cut programs—like art and music—that were not being tested.  Public shaming of teachers happened.  Newspapers published lists of teachers and schools who were not doing well at raising test scores.  

A lot of damage to education was indeed done in the name of No Child Left Behind.

However, something kind of wonderful happened as well.

Teachers started talking more.  We started looking at data in new ways.  We started asking questions about students that weren’t learning.  We started getting more inventive—if our leaders empowered us—and looking beyond the letter of the law.

The professional learning community (PLC) movement became stronger and schools and districts began giving time and resources to enable teachers to work together and get better at the art and science of teaching.

In the 13 years since that day, I have learned a lot about teaching and learning.  I have been training myself in the science of learning—both from a psychological perspective and from a neurological perspective—and I am now ready to throw out my unhelpful story that it is impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency.

I am ready to declare the death knoll for the bell curve.

I now believe that the bell curve is a product of expecting all students to learn at the same rate.  It is a product of expecting that all students can be sorted by age level and are equally ready to learn.  It is a product of expecting that all students in a grade must be studying the same things at the same time.

Although I don’t know of any school or district that has yet achieved a system that has truly killed the bell curve, I know of many (and more joining them every year) that are well on their way towards creating personalized learning systems that harness the natural power of human brains to learn.

I recently discovered Competency Works—an organization that posts daily doses of inspiration about what schools, districts, and entire states around the country are doing to shift the model of American education from a grade-level based (what some have called a factory) model to a personalized model that allows students more “choice and voice” in their learning.

Here is just a brief snippet from a post by Karla Esparza-Phillips and Ace Parsi.

“In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose describes how a faulty belief in the idea of an average student has led to the design of one-size-fits all systems.  Rose state that “there can never be equal opportunity on average.  Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.”

This is the premise of personalized learning—designing systems flexible and responsive enough to address students’ needs as well as build on their strengths and interest, thus recognizing what every parent and teacher has always known—that every child is different.

Our hope is that personalized learning may present the opportunity to flip the traditional model upside down.  Or better yet, put it right side up.”

The work these schools have done to empower teachers, administrators, parents, and students is awe inspiring and fills me with deep wells of hope for public education.

I can now envision a time when American educators have been empowered so much that they are able to give each brain exactly what it needs to learn

I can now envision a time when all students are empowered enough to see themselves as powerful learners who are fully capable of mastery of anything.

I can now envision a time when I no longer hear students saying things like “I hate math.” or “Reading is stupid.”  

I can now envision a time when 100% of students in a school are excellent readers.

I can now envision a time when we shake our heads at people who believed that the bell curve was a reflection of natural intelligence much the same way we shake our heads at people who believed the shapes of our skulls indicated our intellectual potential.

 

The Reading Wars Revisited

 

 

 

 

I woke up this morning in the wee hours with the strange thought going through my head that it was time to gird up my loins, put on some armor, get ready for battle, and head back out to front lines of war.

The Reading Wars, that is.

I have been on the sidelines of these wars for the last ten years—quietly, insistently, raising my voice and fighting small battles one school at a time.

I think the reason my subconscious issued me a call to action this morning was that I recently reread Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.  Coyle’s perspective on learning is empowering and echoes and reinforces the lessons I have learned in my ten years as a Read Right training consultant and my seventeen years as a student of how learning works.  Coyle stands firmly for the science of how the brain learns by repeated practice that is focused on fixing mistakes.

I am with him!  Attempt, fail, analyze, adjust—this is the mantra I live my life by.  And it is how people get better at reading.

But, I think Coyle missed the boat with his take on the Reading Wars.

Here is Coyle’s view:

“For the last forty years or so American Education has been divided by what’s become known as the Reading Wars.  On one side stand the traditionalist forces of Phonics, who believe that the best way to learn to read is through memorizing the sounds of letters and letter-groups.  On the other side are the followers of Whole Language, a theory founded in the 1970s that says all children possess the innate ability to read and write, which arrives according to fixed developmental stages.  They believe the teacher’s role is to be, as the saying goes, “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”

For much of the 1980s Whole Language was on the ascent.  “Matching letters with sounds is a flat-earth view of the world,” wrote Kenneth Goodman in What’s Whole in Whole Language.  Schools started providing literacy-rich environments of books, words, and stories where kids could express this presumably innate ability.  Meaning was emphasized over mere sound; systematic instruction in grammar was considered passé.  Students were encouraged to ignore errors and use invented spelling.  The movement caught on in education circles, and politicians trotted after.  In 1987 California mandated Whole Language for teaching reading and writing.

For midde- and upper-income kids, Whole Language seemed to help, or at least not to obviously hurt.  For minority and low-income kids, however, it was an unqualified disaster.  By the early 1990s California’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked lower than every state’s but Louisiana.  Other states that adopted Whole Language experienced similar test-score drops.  In 1998 two major research efforts, the National Research Council and the National Reading Panel, found that the lack of Phonics contributed to lower rates of achievement for most students.  Charles Sykes writes in Dumbing Down Our Kids of a fourth grader who received above-average grades and a teacher’s comment of “Wow!” for writing, “I’m going to has majik skates.  Im goin to go to disenelan.  Im goin to bin my mom and dad and brusr and sisd. We r go to se mickey mouse.”

Accordingly, the pendulum whipped back toward Phonics.  Defenders of Whole Language have retrenched, incorporating Phonics into their theories but still lobbying for the essential truth of their view.  Phonics supporters, on the other hand, point to their own list of promising programs.  All of which leaves many teachers and schools wading through piles of seemingly contradictory theories and wondering who’s right

Looking at the question through the prism of the talent code, the answer is clear.  The relationship between Phonics and Whole Language precisely mirrors the relationship between deep practice and ignition.  Phonics is about building reliable circuits, paying attention to errors, and fixing them.  It’s about chunking: breaking down a skill into its component parts, and practicing and repeating each action involved in that skill.  It’s about the systematic firing of the signals that build the trusty high-speed skill circuits you’re using right now.

Whole Language on the other hand, is about ignition, about filling motivational fuel tanks by creating environments where children fall in love with reading and writing.  Like any ignition, Whole Language can create acceleration for those who already have the inclination and opportunity to deep-practice, but it is worthless for those who don’t.  To understand myelin is to understand that the Reading Wars should not be a war.  Students need both to succeed.”

I do not fault Coyle on his history of the Reading Wars or his science of myelination, but his view on what deep practice in reading should look like, as well as what constituted Whole Language theory, had me lying awake at 4:00 in the morning forming an imaginary rebuttal.

And Coyle’s voice wasn’t the only voice prodding my subconscious.  I also heard echoes of the high school librarian who appealed to me to help her convince her district’s leadership to keep their Read Right program going.

“They’ve cut our staffing—our program is basically dead.”

“I feel like this program literally saves kids’ lives!”

“We know what works—not providing it is akin to malpractice.”

“Why isn’t Read Right in the What Works Clearinghouse?”

“What can we do?”

Her words reverberated in my mind and refused to let me fall back into sleep.

“Not providing it is akin to malpractice.”

 

Someone else’s words kept echoing in my mind as well—a teacher I sat next to at a conference on culturally responsive teaching.

I shared with her what I do and my concerns that our schools were not currently excelling at producing excellent readers who are grounded in meaning and capable of reading completely comfortably and naturally.

I shared that in school after school that I visit, the majority of students are not excellent readers and how I think that is because we do not currently offer opportunities for students to keep training their brains in reading to the level of excellence—and we also often send students inadvertently down a path towards developing reading problems by focusing on intense direct instruction in phonics and decoding at the expense of making meaning.

Later she said, “When I listen to you talk, it sounds like you’re down on teachers.”

This made me sad, because I am not down on teachers.  I am a teacher.  I understand how challenging it is to work in classrooms today.  I have tremendous respect for all of those engaged in educating our youth.  The teachers who are doing direct instruction in phonics are doing what they know to do—what they have been trained to do—and what they believe is in the best interest of their students.

The problem is, it isn’t working.

Our experiment in “Whole Language” didn’t work.  Coyle’s reading of the history of the movement is correct.  Reading and writing skills deteriorated.

However, our experiment with “Explicit Instruction in Phonics” is not doing much better.  In 2011 California was still ranked 46 out of 52 states and jurisdictions according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And I know from my visits to schools around the country that even in districts that are posting better test scores, most students are not avid readers who are grounded in meaning when they read.  In other words, most students are not excellent readers even when they are reading at grade level.

We can do better.

We must do better.

Read Right Systems has been demonstrating for thirty years that there is a better approach–one that acknowledges that reading is a complex neural process that happens mostly below the level of consciousness, and that brains can get better at this process by engaging in deliberate practice in real reading within the “zone of proximal development” with ongoing specific feedback about what is working and what is not.

Is not giving all the children in our care the opportunity to become excellent at reading akin to malpractice?

No, it’s not, if we are sincerely doing everything we know to do to help our students learn to read.

But once we have seen something that works, and works reliably with all types of learners, then, yes, we have a moral urgency to move forward and try that something new.

Chris Sturgis, from Competency Works, recounts how a teacher in Colorado felt about his district moving forward with performance based education (which is essentially what Read Right methodology is) after seeing it in action in California.

“I’ve heard this phrase before, of not having a choice but to go forward, during other site visits. Often it is described as “moral urgency.” I asked Cook about it. He explained that after visiting a district that had been trying to balance teaching students at their performance levels part of the day with grade-level curriculum the other half (as far as I know, this was a failed experiment, so don’t try it at home) he realized that trying to do P-BL in baby steps, small chunks, halfway, or as hybrids wasn’t going to work. “There are many who don’t realize that delivering grade level curriculum day after day to kids regardless of whether they are learning or not is based on an archaic pedagogy,” he explained. “Many students are harmed by this – they end up thinking that they aren’t smart or give up on school. We know so much more about how students learn today, and our schools should be shaped around it. But if they don’t know that they are doing something harmful, are they really responsible?” He continued, “Once you see personalized, performance-based learning in action, you face a moral question. Are you going to be like Thomas Jefferson who knew that slavery is wrong but kept doing it anyway? Or once you realize that there is a better way to help students learn, are you going to do it, even if you bump up against other parts of the system?” He emphasized, “As a school system, we need to be clear – are we chasing students or test scores? Or trying to do both at once?” (You can listen to Darren Cook yourself on this video.)”

My anguish is that in 30 years of training teachers to deliver a methodology that is working to turn struggling readers into excellent readers, Read Right has not succeeded in shifting the national conversation about how to teach reading.

I haven’t seen any research on our methodology other than what Read Right has done itself.

I haven’t heard anyone talking about the implicit aspects of reading and how those implicit aspects cannot be taught explicitly because the brain doesn’t work like that.

I haven’t succeeded in convincing any schools that Read Right methodology is more than a reading intervention that they should only offer to their struggling readers.  I ask them, “Why should we only offer the opportunity to become excellent to a few?”  Their answer is always that they can’t afford to deliver the methodology any other way.

So, yes, I believe I have a moral obligation re-enter the Reading Wars.  I have a moral obligation to be a leader of learning and begin to shift that national conversation about what brains need—and what kinds of environments give them what they need—in order to become not just good readers, but excellent readers.

However, now that I am fully awake, I can see that the metaphor of a war is the wrong metaphor.  I do not have enemies.  I have colleagues.

My colleagues and I are all engaged in learning.  We are all engaged in getting better at getting better.  We are all on a journey to move ourselves and our schools up the learning curve.

We are fellow travelers on the road to developing schools that work for everyone and reading environments that are personalized, engaging, holistic, based on brain science, and highly effective.

Image by Clem Onojeghuo from Unsplash.co

New Words-New Paradigms

I learned a new word today.  And it is an ugly word.  At least that’s what David Price calls it.  Price, who introduced the word in his book, Open: How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn in the Future, calls it one of the “three ugliest words in the English language”.

But I—I thought it beautiful.  I thought it powerful.  I thought it captured in one swoop an idea I’ve been pondering for years.

The word is heutagogy.

My spell checker doesn’t even recognize it as a word and the average person like me wouldn’t begin to guess the meaning just by looking at it, but I think it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

I’ll let Price explain it, as he does so beautifully.

“There must be some unwritten academic maxim somewhere that if you want to dissuade people from attempting to understand how learning works, you give them the worst names you can think of.  I will attempt to explain this in simple language, but let’s start with a technical announcement:

Though it was happening anyway, ‘open’ has accelerated the shift from pedagogy, to andragogy, to heutagogy.

There, aren’t you glad I told you that?  Notwithstanding the fact that I managed to combine the three ugliest words in the English language in a single sentence, I like to think there’s quite a profound thought in there.  The word pedagogy derives from Greek and, literally translated, means ‘to lead the child’; andragogy is translated as ‘to lead the man (adult); heutagogy means ‘to lead to find’.  I know that’s not much clearer.  But, if we look at commonly-used interpretations, it gets better.

In pedagogy, the learner is led to a conclusion determined by the teacher, informed by the teacher’s knowledge and beliefs—it could be termed ‘instructional learning’.  In andragogy, though the destination may be decided by the tutor, the route involves greater learner involvement, acknowledging the importance of relevance, motivation, and problem solving.  Although andragogy is a term open to many interpretations, let’s use it here to denote ‘self-directed learning’.  In heutagogy, there is not necessarily a defined destination, nor a prescribed route—it is self-determined learning.”

Price writes about the shift from pedagogy to andragogy to heutagogy as if there was a hierarchy with one level being better than the next, but I see it a little differently.  I see these three ways of looking at my role as a teacher as three tools in my tool belt.  Three tools that I can master and then choose which one to use depending on the needs of the learner.

The schools and teachers of today need access to all of these types of ways of thinking about teaching and learning.  We have invested heavily in training ourselves in pedagogy.  When that is the only tool we use, however, learners suffer.  Learners who are never given the freedom to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, or how fast they must go when learning will begin to invent unhelpful stories about learning and their own capacities as learners.

I hear it all the time:

“Math is stupid.”

“I hate reading.”

“Why do I have to learn this?  I’ll never use it”

“I can’t do this.  It’s too hard.”

“This is boring.”

“I’m stupid.”

Some people might say that learners who say these things just have an attitude problem. If they’d just change their mindset, they might find they liked reading or math.  But I say that learners develop these unhelpful stories when the learning environments we create for them do not match what their brains need.  I have seen these stories change as the learning environment changes and we allow learners to start where they are-without judgement-and progress at their own pace.

Yet, given too much ‘self-determined’ learning or even ‘self-directed’ learning when we’re at the low end of the learning curve doesn’t work well either.  How many of us have shied away from learning because we didn’t have someone to guide us through the process?  We didn’t know where to start.  We didn’t know what we needed to learn.  I have put off for years (or abandoned altogether) learning about things—things I knew I could be passionately interested in if I could just develop a little skill—because I didn’t know how to teach myself.

Singing, Zumba, ballet, piano, videography—all abandoned almost as soon as I started because I didn’t have enough skill or enough of a growth mindset to persist through the tough beginning stages of learning.

Sometimes we need a little pedagogy.

But, often, we need more than that.  We need pedagogy, and andragogy, and heutagogy.   We need all three beautiful tools in our tool belts.