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.