Schools raise scores, but not smarts

Schools can improve students’ achievement test scores, but not their cognitive ability, writes Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. Reseachers analyzed math and English scores and cognitive ability (working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning) among nearly 1,400 eighth graders attending traditional, exam and charter public schools in Boston.

“Good test takers tend to have high levels of working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning skills,” Kaufman writes.

Cognitive ability was associated with growth in achievement test scores from 4th to 8th grade. This is consistent with prior research suggesting that cognitive ability predicts academic achievement, but academic achievement does not predict cognitive ability.

Students in some schools showed growth in achievement scores but school quality “played little role in the growth of cognitive ability.”

Students attending a charter school as a result of winning the admissions lottery had higher standardized test scores compared to students who lost the lottery.

There was no difference between the lottery groups, however, on measures of cognitive ability.

Cognitive skills such as fluid reasoning and executive functioning (working memory and cognitive inhibition) affect many life outcomes, from school performance to drug use, Kaufman writes. The researchers cite “examples of targeted programs that increase cognitive control and reasoning.”

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

Understanding why algorithms work

Children need to learn algorithms to understand math, write Alice Crary, a philosophy professor, and W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor, in the New York Times.

. .  it is true that algorithm-based math is not creative reasoning. Yet the same is true of many disciplines that have good claims to be taught in our schools. Children need to master bodies of fact, and not merely reason independently, in, for instance, biology and history.

Mastering an algorithm requires “a distinctive kind of thought,” they write. It’s not “merely mechanical.” In addition, algorithms are “the most elegant and powerful methods for specific operations. . . . Math instruction that does not teach both that these algorithms work and why they do is denying students insight into the very discipline it is supposed to be about.”

Some commenters claimed math reformers advocate a “balanced” approach that includes algorithms, writes Barry Garelick in Education News. He is dubious.

I am reminded of a dialogue between a friend of mine—a math professor—and an public school administrator.  My friend was making the point that students need basic foundational skills in order to succeed in math. The administrator responded with “You teach skills. But we teach understanding.”

. . . The reform approach to “understanding” is teaching small children never to trust the math, unless you can visualize why it works. If you can’t “visualize” it, you can’t explain it.  And if you can’t explain it, then you don’t “understand” it.

According to Robert Craigen, math professor at University of Manitoba, “Forcing students to use inefficient procedures that require ham-handed handling of place value so that they articulate “meaning” out loud in every stage is the arithmetic equivalent of forcing a reader to keep his finger on the page and to sound out every word, every time, with no progression of reading skill.”

The power of math, however, is allowing for exploration of concepts that cannot be visualized.  Math is what takes over when our intuition begins to fail us.

Garelick, who’s launched a second career as a math teacher, links to a 1948 math book’s illustration of different ways to do mental multiplication:

Figure 2 (Source: Study Arithmetics, Grade 5)

Trendy vs. truth: Can the university survive?

If universities aren’t going to teach truth, beauty, knowledge or reasoning — and they can’t guarantee liberal arts graduates will earn enough to pay their debts — something’s got to give, writes Victor Davis Hanson on PJ Media.

A fourth of liberal arts courses are trendy time wasters, writes Hanson, a classics and military history fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and an emeritus classics professor at Fresno State. Students don’t learn a body of knowledge. They don’t master inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity. They don’t learn to write clearly.

(Trendy classes) tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

. . .  college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

Vocational and technical colleges “are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education,” he writes. They don’t pretend to teach humanities.

 Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Federal aid allows colleges to keep hiking tuition, leaving students deeper in debt. Professors complain that “grade-grubbing” students won’t take their esoteric courses. Why should they? Hanson asks.

. . .  does the computer programming major at DeVry take an elective like the Poetics of Masculinity to enrich his approach to programing? Does the two-year JC course on nursing include an enhanced class like “Constructing the Doctor: the hierarchies of male privilege”?

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a humanities degree is questionable. Most studies say a liberal arts bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, but how long will that be true? “I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.”

Hansen suggests a national test in math and verbal skills and knowledge for a bachelor’s degree like the bar exams for law graduates. Someone who’d skipped college could take a longer version of the bachelor’s exam.

Most college students pick what they think are practical majors. Business administration is the most popular college major, according to the Princeton Review. Also in the top 10 are psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer and information science.

The math problem: All rote, no reasoning

Community college students placed in remedial math — a large majority — may have memorized a few procedures, but they don’t have a clue what they’re doing, according to researchers.

In one study, few could place -o.7 and 13/8 on a number line from -2 to 2. Asked which is greater, a/5 or a/8, 53 percent answered correctly, barely beating a coin toss.

“Seeing two fractions near each other apparently triggered an urge in some students to use the cross-multiplication procedure they had memorized,” writes Nate Kornell on Psychology Today. If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In Sweden, schooling boosts knowledge

Yep, School Makes You Smarter in terms of knowledge, writes Daniel Willingham.

Swedish 18-year-olds were tested on word meanings and reading technical prose, which uses “crystallized” intelligence (what you know) before military service. They also took spatial reasoning and logic tests, which use “fluid” intelligence (reasoning that is not dependent on particular knowledge).

Students of the same age with more days of schooling performed better on the crystallized intelligence tests; fluid intelligence wasn’t linked to schooling.

Brain training: Can it make us smarter?

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? asks the New York Times. Research suggests that training “working memory” and attention carries over to other cognitive skills.

Working memory is more than just the ability to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it; it’s the capacity to manipulate the information you’re holding in your head — to add or subtract those numbers, place them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an analogy is equally dependent on working memory; you can’t follow even a simple statement like “See Jane run” if you can’t put together how “see” and “Jane” connect with “run.” Without it, you can’t make sense of anything.

“We see attention and working memory as the cardiovascular function of the brain,” says Susanne Jaeggi, whose research has challenged the consensus that “fluid intelligence” can’t be improved.

Training the brain has shown results for preschoolers, elementary students, college students and the elderly in a variety of studies, reports the Times.  There’s no proof yet that the training leads to “real-world gains in schooling and job performance . . .  but already, people with disorders including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) and traumatic brain injury have seen benefits from training.”

There are skeptics:

. . . the most prominent takedown of I.Q. training came in June 2010, when the neuroscientist Adrian Owen published the results of an experiment conducted in coordination with the BBC television show “Bang Goes the Theory.” After inviting British viewers to participate, Owen recruited 11,430 of them to take a battery of I.Q. tests before and after a six-week online program designed to replicate commercially available “brain building” software. . . .  “Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained,” he concluded in the journal Nature, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

Others say brain training transfers to other skills, such as reading comprehension for college students.

A Berkeley researchers, Silvia Bunge, compared disadvantaged children who played a reasoning game with those who played games designed to boost response times.

After eight weeks of training — 75 minutes per day, twice a week — Bunge found that the children in the reasoning group scored, on average, 10 points higher on a nonverbal I.Q. test than they had before the training. Four of the 17 children who played the reasoning games gained an average of more than 20 points. In another study, not yet published, Bunge found improvements in college students preparing to take the LSAT.

The Times story is “a bit — but only a bit — too optimistic,” writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

  Fluid intelligence is one’s ability to reason, see patterns, and think logically, independent of specific experience. Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is stuff that you know, knowledge that comes from prior experience. You can see why working memory capacity might lead to more fluid intelligence–you’ve got a greater workspace in which to manipulate ideas.

“There are enough replications of this basic effect that it seems probable that something is going on,” writes Willingham. But it’s not clear that training working memory will improve performance on a variety of cognitive tasks.

 

Is our college students learning?

Is our college students learning? Many college students aren’t learning “critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills,” concludes a new study of undergraduates at a broad range of colleges and universities.

After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Colleges are testing a voluntary accountability system that measures students’ progress and graduation rates.


Big, bad Brockton High turns around

Shocked by horrible test scores on Massachusetts’ state exam, teachers at Brockton High began meeting on Saturdays to discuss how to improve the school. Brockton High, with 4,100 mostly low-income, mostly black and Hispanic students, is a success story, reports the New York Times. For the last two years, the school outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools in improving English Language Arts scores. (In overall performance, Brockton is below average, but much higher than it used to be.)

Shamed by low scores in 1999, the teachers’ committee asked every educator in the building to teach reading, writing, speaking and reasoning skills. The administration stood aside and let the committee take the lead. In 2004, Susan Szachowicz, one of the teachers who led the committee,  took over as principal.

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.

The schools elaborate tracking system, which had five levels, was eliminated because low-track students weren’t learning.

As scores rose, teachers bought in to the schoolwide focus on literacy. There were no mass firings of teachers and no union opposition. Szachowicz works within the union contract.

Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions.

But the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.

Teachers continue to meet on Saturday to discuss improving the school. The priority now is improving math instruction.

Brockton High is one of the schools profiled in How High Schools Become Exemplary, by Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard economist who studies the minority achievement gap. Exemplary schools share a key characteristic, the report concludes: “Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.”