Emergency measures for everyone?

There was a comedian, I forget his name, who had a joke about airplanes.  To paraphrase: “The black box,” he said, “Always survives the crash.  Why don’t they make the entire plane out that stuff?”  That’s obviously not a serious question, but it touches on a notion that is somewhat serious.  To get to the serious core of that notion, we’ll have to talk about something even more serious: cartoons.

Many children’s cartoons from the 70’s and 80’s (and shows like Power Rangers) have a similar notion running through them.  (Modern cartoons may have the same dynamic; I don’t watch them anymore though, so I can’t really comment.)  The formula is pretty stable: the “good guys” always seem to have trouble dealing with the bad guy/problem of the week, but then they form Voltron/turn into He-Man/use their Care Bear powers/Summon Godzilla and the evil is defeated, the problem solved, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The question that pops into one’s head after watching a few years of this is, of course, “Why don’t they just form Voltron in the first place?” In other words, why wait until you’re getting your head beat in to do what works?

Barry Garelick writes something in a very similar vein about mathematics education, in an EducationNews opinion piece. It’s fairly long, but it’s worth reading.  He includes a great deal of detail, some of which I was unaware (such as IDEIA’s definition of “learning disability” being based on a delta of IQ and achievement).  Here’s the core of his argument:

IDEIA required instead that states must permit districts to adopt alternative models including the “Response to Intervention” (RtI) model in which struggling students are pulled out of class and given alternative instruction.

What type of alternative instruction is effective? A popular textbook on special education (Rosenberg, et. al, 2008), notes that up to 50% of students with learning disabilities have been shown to overcome their learning difficulties when given explicit instruction. This idea is echoed by others and has become the mainstay of RtI. What Works Clearinghouse finds strong evidence that explicit instruction is an effective intervention, stating: “Instruction during the intervention should be explicit and systematic. This includes providing models of proficient problem solving, verbalization of thought processes, guided practice, corrective feedback, and frequent cumulative review”. Also, the final report of the President’s National Math Advisory Panel states: “Explicit instruction with students who have mathematical difficulties has shown consistently positive effects on performance with word problems and computation. Results are consistent for students with learning disabilities, as well as other students who perform in the lowest third of a typical class.”

Garelick argues that, like the hapless good guys on Saturday Morning cartoons, schools are waiting until they are getting their heads beat in (i.e., when students are falling behind in math achievement) to do what actually works.  Why not simply do what works in the first place, and have “emergency” measures for everyone?

His arguments aren’t perfect, but they’re provocative and probably have more than a little truth to them.  Read the whole thing.


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    One possibility would be that what works for the kids with lower IQs may NOT be what works for the kids with higher IQs.. so, without tracking, it’s impossible to form voltron right at the start, because at the beginning it’s not clear that “This looks like a job for Voltron!”

    • If our society wasn’t scared to group students by ability (regardless of what the classroom’s racial / gender / ethnic / etc. makeup would look like), these sorts of problems wouldn’t be happening in the first place. To not do so does a disservice to ALL students, regardless of racial / gender / ethnic / etc. makeup.

      P.S. – As a fan of 1980’s cartoons, I can tell you that (at least the explanations given in the fictional Universes) that the Voltron tiger-shaped vehicles were useless in a fight for a certain amount of time after their big transformation due to damage, drained energy, etc. He-Man and She-Ra could have technically stayed in their powered up forms forever, but chose not to (who can blame them? they did have their own lives to live when ‘not on the clock’, after all…) In the Transformers’ case, the 5/6 robot teams that could form a big robot usually didn’t do so unless they had to because the 5/6 individual robots preferred to stay as individuals most of the time. When they combined, the ‘new’ big robot they formed had its own distinct personality, which was a blend of the individual 5/6…

      • It’s not fear that motivates age-grouping but organizational convenience.

        A birth certificate is all that’s necessary to neatly, and unequivocally, pigeon-hole a child. Ability-grouping, by contrast, is freaking mess. Whose standards of ability grouping? Applied how? Subject to re-evaluation under what circumstances? Resulting in what outcome differences between kids at the top of the scale and those at the bottom?

        Oh sure, it stands to reason that ability-grouping kids would result in better educational outcomes but so what? If none of the professionals or elective officials are on the hook to maximize educational outcomes then what’s the reason to do so?

        For God’s sake, this isn’t rocket science.

        Flexibility and responsiveness are demanding and dangerous. Demanding and dangerous occupations should come with some sort of commensurate compensation but the public education system isn’t designed to reward individuals who are willing to undertake that sort of obligation. Precisely the opposite in fact.

        That’s a big part of the reason for edu-crap which gives the illusion of progressive, courageous policies when they’re anything but.

        If it’s a flexible and responsive public education system the public wants there’ll have to fundamental changes and it may quite likely be that the sort of flexibility and responsiveness embodied in the title question of this post are intrinsically beyond not just the extant public education system but ultimately, beyond any public education system.

  2. Sean Mays says:

    Maybe the right metaphor isn’t cartoons at all, but Dungeons and Dragons. The magic user only has so many spells available per day – dependent on his level and Intelligence score. You don’t REALLY want to use a precious level 3 Lightning Bolt when a mundane Level 1 Magic Missle will do the trick.

    Some super hero’s are limited. Batman needs a recharge/replenish the utility belt; eventually the Hulk can’t mantain his adrenaline rush and has to go back to David Banner and find some pants.

    Maybe there’s truth to the old saw – it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  3. Direct Instruction for math and reading was standard operating procedure in the ’50’s and ’60’s. It worked fine for most kids, including many who were designated “slow learners,” which included both kids with less cognitive ability and those with what we would call learning disabilities today.

  4. Direct, explicit instruction works well for kids who require intervention. That’s not really a surprise. The reason it isn’t used all the time is that it doesn’t actually work for everyone. It also doesn’t, generally speaking, provide understanding of the underlying mathematics. When we intervene with struggling kids, we have a short window of time each day to work with them and direct instruction is the most quickly effective. But we are just teaching algorithms and memorization rather than understanding.

    Whether we actually need to have everyone understand the underlying mathematics is an entirely different conversation. I do know that kids who come to school from an enriched environment at home tend to struggle with direct instruction if you don’t mix in some experiential learning simply because they’re bored. Bored kids don’t learn well and become troublemakers. Unfortunately, many curricula substitute fun activities for experiential learning and then you get engaged children doing fun lessons that don’t actually teach anything useful.

    It’s a balance, like many things in life. It may be unfair to compare direct instruction with other types of instruction in a general classroom because not every teacher really grasps the underlying math themselves. They can’t teach what they don’t know. And if you throw in cute but lame curricula it’s not fair to compare that with direct instruction.

    • Yes, there needs to be a balance; teachers who know their content (math, in this context, but same for all subjects), good curriculum (Singapore, Saxon) and explicit instruction. The admin must support/enforce appropriate school/class behavior and kids and parents must be willing to put in appropriate effort; learning is an active process and the whole team needs to pull its weight. My experience has been that many ES teachers don’t like math and don’t know it well, so giving them a solid curriculum and training in explicit instruction should help them become more effective.

    • “The reason it [direct, explicit instruction] isn’t used all the time is that it doesn’t actually work for everyone. It also doesn’t, generally speaking, provide understanding of the underlying mathematics.”

      There is absolutely no basis for this statement. You can’t use “all” and “everyone” when you really mean “most” of the time and “most” everyone. There is linkage between skills and understanding. Proper skills are never rote. Back when I taught math, nobody could pass with rote skills. Proper skills without understanding is not possible.

      “Whether we actually need to have everyone understand the underlying mathematics is an entirely different conversation.”

      And you would presume to make that judgment in K-8? Even after that, who would make that judgment, teachers or the student? This is a formula for blaming the student.

      “I do know that kids who come to school from an enriched environment at home tend to struggle with direct instruction if you don’t mix in some experiential learning simply because they’re bored.”

      They are bored by the slow pace. How about all of the kids who are excruciatingly annoyed by group work? There can be issues with any pedagogical approach. My son comes from an enriched home environment and he can’t stand silliness and wasted time. Discovery is neither necessary or sufficient.

      “It’s a balance, like many things in life.”

      I’ve heard this so many times before. When my son was in 5th grade, the school had a parent/teacher meeting about Everyday Math. Everyone talked about “balance”. Blah, blah, blah. The school continued to do what it was doing and bright students continued getting to 5th grade not knowing the times table.

      So what, exactly, is the problem. The problem is that the skills part of the balance equation is not getting done. This is not an issue of pedagogy. It’s and issue of competence. Go ahead and use a student-centered approach that focuses on problem solving and discovery. Does it get the skills portion of the balance done? How would you know? When do you start blaming IQ and home environment? The problem is that many educators really don’t believe in the skills side of the balance equation. They view them as rote and unlinked to understanding. They think that with some magic understanding and general thinking skills, kids can solve anything. I call this anti-math and ignorance.

      Ask the parents of the best math students what they specifically do at home. They don’t just provide some sort of vague enriched environment where they turn off the TV and make sure homework gets done. They directly teach math facts and ensure that they are mastered. This never gets done at school. Our lower schools point to our Singapore Math trained son as a success case for Everyday Math. They don’t know, and they don’t want to know.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        The highest performing math students in our district are frequently of Asian or Indian backgrounds. They also frequently use either private tutors or Kumons to supplement.

        • Sean Mays says:

          Based on my experiences I’ll make a SUPER broad generalization: Americans tend to see math as a “gift” – you either “get it” or you don’t, folks from Asia and the sub-continent seem to believe it’s a talent that can be developed – hard work and all that. To a lesser extent, it seems to roll into the sciences as well.

      • YES; the bright kids (in some schools the majority) are bored with the slow pace, the lack of challenge, the groupwork/discovery, the wasted time and the too-frequent inclusion of non-math (artwork, feelings about math etc). Steve H nailed it, and so did Sean on the differing attitudes toward math.

        • Sean Mays says:

          We made a decision on homeschooling this year momof4. One day when I proposed doing an artsy project for history, my kid said to me: “I like art and I like worksheets, but I hate to mix them. Can we not do this project?” Which was a relief to ME, because my art projects look pretty borderline when completed 🙂

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          FYI, Kumons has an objective standard. A kid must be able to solve a certain type of problem at a certain accuracy level in a specified amount of time. Once they reach that proficiency, they’re move up to the next level. The kid can stay at any particular level as long or short a time as it takes to meet the proficiency standard. Some kids bang through levels in just a few weeks, others linger.

    • Supersub says:

      Everyone needs basic skills, and the only effective way to teach them and make them automatic is through repetition. The “boredom” issue does not reveal a weakness of explicit teaching, in my experience, it is a problem with student motivation and behavior learned at home.

  5. Direct instruction has worked for mathematics for over 3000 years. Why fix what isn’t broken?

    P.S. – The ‘black box’ joke was coined by Gallagher – the smashing-watermelons-with-sledgehammers comedian – who was at his height in the early 1990’s, and just retired last month after a heart attack. :/

    • Sean Mays says:

      Direct instruction (more properly explicit instruction) did NOT work for EVERYBODY for over 3000 years. The notion of a halcyon Golden Age of Education is a myth. At some point, (and I blame the 60’s / Boomers for this); our social conscience woke up and we decried that our scientists and engineers did not reflect our society; SO …

      1) Henceforth, our classrooms MUST reflect society at large. Woe be to thou who causeth Disparate Impact!!

      2) Our textbooks must reflect our society, by gender, creed and preference for gluten free food products. Never mind the quality of the curriculum.

      3) Our Values: The hippies were great, questioning ALL authority. Sadly this led to “value relativism” – who’s to say that an X-studies major doesn’t create value to society that a molecular biophysicist does? It’s all a choice after all; I COULD do 4th order partial differential equations in my head; and develop warp drive, but I choose to ruminate over past injustices and work for a better world.

      4) Real heros have been outlawed. I forget the source, but I read a nice arguement about how progressives feel the need to attack classical heros, mainly because they espouse a strong moral code, with rights and wrongs. Kids without heros don’t design ships to put men on the moon or go to Mars. Or: ” Some people insist that “mediocre” is better than “best.” They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly. They despise brains because they have none” – Heinlein/Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

      5) I was re-reading Friday by Heinlein. He writes: “… but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness …” I remember when I was teaching and being shocked by the number of kids who would NOT stand during the pledge of allegiance. Even getting them to stop talking was an accomplishment.

      Just some thoughts, feel free to disagree.

      • Roger Sweeny says:


        3. I don’t think there is “values relativism” at all. There are just different values. Someone who takes X-studies and fights the oppression of X creates great value.

        4. There are lots of heroes, just different heroes. Rosa Parks is a hero. MLK is a hero. Nelson Mandela is a hero.

        5. My students are incredibly polite and considerate. I’m sometimes shocked by what they don’t know, and yes, they talk too much and don’t listen to me enough 🙂 But they are pleasant people.

        • Sean Mays says:

          3. We’ll have to disagree on relativism; maybe I’m just jingoistic. Does one really need an X-studies major to fight the oppression of X? I don’t think X-studies will come up with the answer on how to feed a couple more billion people in the next 80 years; or cure cancer. Or create prosperity for the oppressed. Know how and innovation might.

          4. I agree with you, they ARE heros and it’s interesting that every case you picked is a “social justice” hero. How many kids want to grow up to be Neil Armstrong? Jacques Cousteau? How many students want to be MLK or Parks? How many more want to be sports stars or rappers? I wonder how many high school kids know who Nelson Mandela is? I see those random surveys of what kids know – many don’t remember who fought whom in WWII; can’t place the Civil War in the correct century; just saying.

          5. Many of mine were too, but they could get crazy as a group. I still think we’re losing the manners battle. Maybe that’s my personal bete noire.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Much of political correctness is enforcing a moral code. Those who don’t go along are not just wrong but bad.

            Whether political correctness and X-studies lead to good results is an empirical question but it seems certain to me that there are strong moral judgments behind them.

          • Shamelessly borrowed from an anonymous comment elsewhere:

            Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.” – Theodore Dalrymple

      • Hippies… god, what can’t they be blamed for? Seriously.

        Regarding heroes… how many hold Thurgood Marshall as a hero? He did more than just about every other civil rights leader combined. What people look for in heroes is pitiful… flash instead of substance, vanity instead of humility, rebellion instead of patience.

        • I think the “protest” culture has largely derailed our political process. One, is gives influence to those most vocal, not necessary the most logical, and two, it blinds citizens to the instrument of real political change – the polls.

    • I’m almost positive the “black box” joke is from Seinfeld’s stand-up.