If it works, keep doing it

New York City wasted millions of dollars on bonuses for students and teachers with no effect on performance, writes Sol Stern in a New York Daily News op-ed.  Now a Core Knowledge reading program is succeeding in 10 Bronx and Queens elementary schools by teaching phonics and background knowledge to disadvantaged students. But there’s no guarantee the funding will be continued.

As chancellor of New York City schools, Joel Klein set up a comparison between the Core Knowledge pilot schools and similar schools using “balanced literacy.”

After the first year, Klein announced the early results: On a battery of reading tests, the kindergartners in the Core Knowledge program had achieved gains five times greater than those of students in the control group. The second-year study showed that the Core Knowledge kids made reading gains twice as great as those of students in the control group.

The third-year results will be released in the fall. If the gains continue, logic says the program should be extended. But logic doesn’t always prevail.

On the other hand, New York City’s Education Department has ended a three-year bonus program for teachers and administrators because a RAND study found it had no effect on students’ or schools’ performance.

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Comments

  1. Stuart Buck says:

    I wonder what the Ravitch acolytes will say about this story. On one hand, it supports the idea that we need a broad curriculum, etc. On the other hand, it completely undermines their insistence that testing inevitably leads poor beleaguered educators to teach to the test, to narrow the curriculum, and even to cheat and lie out of the sheer pressure. After all, if kids can actually do BETTER on the tests with none of the latter misbehavior, then testing isn’t the horror it’s made out to be.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    What is it with phonics? Did I miss something? Phonics has always seemed to be one of those items, like a can opener, which works great and doesn’t cost a lot but which, for some reason, is always being used in experiments to see if it works.
    It’s always competing against methods which demonstrably don’t work and thus get tons of money.
    As here.
    I don’t get it. Do phonics text books have an offensive odor or something?

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    What is it with phonics? Did I miss something? Phonics has always seemed to be one of those items, like a can opener, which works great and doesn’t cost a lot but which, for some reason, is always being used in experiments to see if it works.
    It’s always competing against methods which demonstrably don’t work and thus get tons of money.

    Imagine that you are some professor of education. You need to do research to get tenure. You can’t publish research in reading acquisition by claiming that phonics is the way to go. We already know that! So you need to come up with something else.

    This is not restricted just to education research. Lots of other fields have the same basic problem … the known approaches are pretty good, so you wind up with papers claiming a 1%-2% improvement (often only for a niche … the current solution is often more robust). Or you wind up with papers that claim no improvement but are different in some way. What you really want is research showing large gains, but this is difficult and rare and you won’t get tenure if you don’t publish the 1%-2% papers.

    One can imagine phonics research scratching out small gains every year, but the problem with *THIS* is that you will need large (expensive!) sample sizes to show the small gains. A totally different approach, with a sandbagged phonics baseline, will show large (often bogus, usually non-reproducible) gains. These results are publishable.

    Cynical, I know, but I’ve spent an annoying amount of time in the last 2+ years wading through academic papers and research in GPU programming (very hot, currently) and image processing. The vast majority of these are either trivial or flat out wrong. But all count towards the critical published paper count that is so important to tenure.

  4. The problem with phonics is that it is so effective. It precludes, on the basis of efficacy, any other means of teaching reading.

    The difficulty lies in the fact the educational efficacy is of no more value within the boundaries of the public education system then teaching skill. Teachers aren’t valued for their teaching skill so it follows that effective teaching techniques aren’t valued for their efficacy.

  5. “The difficulty lies in the fact the educational efficacy is of no more value within the boundaries of the public education system then teaching skill. Teachers aren’t valued for their teaching skill so it follows that effective teaching techniques aren’t valued for their efficacy.”

    Allen, that is very well-said. I hope that I will be permitted to use your quote from time to time.

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    Core Knowledge and Phonics – both works and to h*LL with Ravitch and what she thinks…she is so responsible for the mess the government schools are in…

  7. palisadesk says:

    The reason the Core Knowledge reading program got far superior results was not only because it was a phonics-based approach. It’s true that a systematic phonics approach is the most effective at getting beginners reading. But it doesn’t address the “reading comprehension” issue, which requires much more than accurate word identification. The Core Knowledge program introduces a huge knowledge-building component which at the early levels is mostly oral: quality material read TO the students, with discussions, activities, reading and writing and vocabulary-building centered around these enriching themes.

    You can get an idea about the content here:
    http://books.coreknowledge.org/product.php?productid=16358&cat=365&page=1

    (much more engaging than “All About Me.”)

    Language development and content knowledge are essential ingredients to good reading. The CK reading program has put them all together in what appears to be an effective mix.

    But don’t count on that impressing the NYC bureaucracy. Joel Klein was firmly wedded to “Balanced Literacy” and expunged other competing programs that had good track records (including Direct Instruction and Success For All).

  8. Allen, that is very well-said. I hope that I will be permitted to use your quote from time to time.

    Har! Sure, but when the Pulitzer Prize committee comes a knockin’ you’re going to have to fess up.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    OK, I’ll break down Stuart’s question and respond.

    First, I’m not sure how much I should be called a Ravitch acolyte even though I definitely admire and listen to her — because I was a sharp skeptic of “it’s a miracle!” education reform fads back when she was in favor of them. She came around to agree with me (and many others).

    Second, it’s inaccurate to describe our views in this way: “insistence that testing inevitably leads poor beleaguered educators to teach to the test, to narrow the curriculum, and even to cheat and lie out of the sheer pressure.”

    It’s the STAKES attached to the testing that inevitably lead educators to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and cheat. It’s not the tests themselves. Ravitch isn’t anti-testing (nor am I).

    What critics of high-stakes testing are against is the rewards and punishments attached to the test results — rewards and punishments for the teachers, administrators and schools themselves, not the individual test-takers.

  10. Stuart Buck says:

    So what? Your dilemma still remains. You can’t maintain both of the following propositions at the same time:

    1. “It’s the STAKES attached to the testing that inevitably lead educators to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and cheat.”

    2. Broad and rich curricula like Core Knowledge would actually allow educators to IMPROVE test scores above and beyond a narrow test-prep curriculum.

    Diane Ravitch actually does maintain both propositions (she makes point 1 all the time, while there was a page in her book that made point 2), but she’s obviously not thinking very clearly.* If point 2 is true, then it CANNOT be the case that high stakes “inevitably” lead to bad behavior. Quite the opposite. If point 2 is true, high stakes attached to tests should make educators ALL THE MORE eager to use a broad and rich curriculum that would enable students to do even better.

    * (The only way points 1 and 2 could both be true is if educators are too dumb to understand point 2, and so high stakes testing drives them to take counterproductive actions due to their inability to understand what actually works in education. But I don’t think that’s the argument a Ravitch would want to make.)

  11. CarolineSF says:

    I disagree with your argument, Stuart Buck, but it’s not worth arguing. I posted to dispute and refute your claim that Ravitch opposes testing. .

  12. Stuart Buck says:

    There’s no other logical possibility, Caroline, which is why you can’t respond. If 1) high stakes testing motivates educators to try to get the students to do well on tests, and if 2) broad and rich curricula actually help students do BETTER on the tests than would a narrow test-prep approach, then 3) educators will be motivated precisely to offer a broad and rich curriculum, unless and ONLY unless they are too ignorant to do so.

  13. I’m not anti-testing either, but I quibble somewhat with Stuart’s claim that these two ideas…

    “1. “It’s the STAKES attached to the testing that inevitably lead educators to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and cheat.”

    “2. Broad and rich curricula like Core Knowledge would actually allow educators to IMPROVE test scores above and beyond a narrow test-prep curriculum.

    …cannot be held simultaneously. They can and frequently are.

    It seems fair to say that fundamental misconceptions about the nature of reading in general and reading tests specifically, actively disincentivize a patient investment in long-term knowledge and vocabulary growth, which are the entire point of a knowledge-rich curriculum like Core Knowledge. If you are expected to move the needle year over year (for reasons that have never been quite clear to me), you will almost inevitably fall back on a test-prep-and-reading-skills approach to classroom instruction, rather than risk seeing your scores go down in any given year. The entire proposition behind knowledge and vocabulary acquisition hold that it’s a “slow growing plant,” as E.D. Hirsch has often said. The results show up in the long term. Our current regimen of high stakes reading tests expect results now. This is not always ideal or realistic. It is, so to speak, penny wise and pound foolish.

    More here:

    http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=theres_no_such_thing_as_a_reading_test

  14. Stuart Buck says:

    If you are expected to move the needle year over year (for reasons that have never been quite clear to me), you will almost inevitably fall back on a test-prep-and-reading-skills approach to classroom instruction, rather than risk seeing your scores go down in any given year.

    I still don’t see why this is true. NCLB had a 12-year time frame, enough for the entire first through 12th grade student body to turn completely over. And there are no penalties anywhere for individual teachers or individual grades that don’t see their test scores go up in every single year. The only expectation was that entire schools would rise to proficiency over a 12-year period.

    Why isn’t that long enough for administrators to have a little perspective on what would work over the long term? What do we need to do, give schools 25 or 50 years to get to the target of actually teaching kids a couple of minimal skills?

  15. Speaking of phonics, anyone remember Reading First?

  16. Because the backstory in public education is an institutional indifference to education.

    Whether the kids learn or not carries no institutionally-derived urgency for the professionals. NCLB, being of fairly recent origins was just another passing storm to be born by people who’ve come to expect that there are no professional repercussions to an absence of professional skills.

    Besides, the basic structure of public education is untouched and that’s the source of that institutional indifference to education. As long as that basic structure is unchanged outcomes will change minimally and revert to the previous status quo as soon as the external pressure ends.

    As to Stuart’s conjecture, only in the public education system could a determination of whether some pitifully minimal standards are being met be construed as an impediment greater accomplishments.

    Just because we’ve got standards for educational house-painters doesn’t mean the occasional pedagogical Michelangelo can’t paint their particular Sistine Chapel ceiling.