Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Teach Thyself

Schools are continually spending money and time on unproven methods (including most of their curriculum). All any salesperson has to do is show up with one study that says it’s effective and the adminsration is drooling all over it. Never mind the studies that didn’t work, or the massive number of other interventions that were included that muddy the waters of whether the technique itself was effective or these other changes. And they’ll even ignore the demographics of groups picked in the study and assume that because it worked with that group it would work with their group. School directors really need an education in how to read and apply statistics and credible study evidence.

In our Montessori school, I had a huge argument about Brain Gym with the director (just one of the reasons I left). His newest teacher was using Brain Gym techniques with the students. An example includes repeatedly squeezing the skin above the sternum and the skin between the collarbones to 'wake up your brain.' He said it was perfectly valid because other schools were using it and it was scientific (???). After I sent him an analysis (done by someone else--I'm not a statistician) of the studies presented about Brain Gym (what there were), he backed off.

He then asked my opinion of this other 'really great program' that someone had just tried to sell them. This one was based on Sensory Disintegration theory (it was years ago, Bridges Learning). It took almost no time to discover the Sensory Disintegration was not a scientifically recognized disorder and that none of the approaches attempting to remedy problems supposedly based in SD showed (statistically) significant improvements. The study then reported on the Bridges site showed improvement with inner-city kids (of which we had ZERO at our Montessori school) and the program involved a lot of extra teachers and a lot of physical activity and a lot of individual time. All of those things can affect learning independently of any of the sensory disintegration therapy--and you don't need to buy a big program to do it.

I am not at all surprised to find that most school systems do not look for evidence of effectiveness when it comes time to choose curriculum. The school boards either wouldn't believe research because of their preconceived ideas, would find excuses to count it or discount the research because they've already made a decision, they don't believe that 'evidence' is a valid way to pick curriculum, or they can't figure out how to interpret the studies to begin with. A little bitter sounding, eh? I am quite disgusted with the lack of scientific literacy of those teaching our children (and by that, I mean other people's children).


christinemm said...

A friend who lives in a very wealthy town on the Fairfield County/Litchfield County area line told me a story. The elementary school which was close to 99% white and with census data showing most adults in the town had numerous college degrees (not just one), was approached to buy a new curriculum for the public school, I can't remember if it was K grade or grade 1.

Anyhow the curriculum was very expensive and something like $5K to train the each of the teachers to use it.

The vendor did a big presentation about the program and my friend started asking questions. She was not getting clear answers. Vague learning goals were given and something about helping kids read. The principal was all for it as was the teachers.

Long story short after her own Internet investigation and reading the site of the company she learned it was a program specifically to use picture books. The goal was to target urban minorities whose parents were low education level and some may not even be able to read themselves. The program was designed to have the child take home the books and read them with the parent and the parent was supposed to maybe get a spin off effect of themselves learning to read in this process. Also the picture books chosen were about Hispanics and Afriacan-Americans. Some books were focusing in the cultural roots of those ethnicities so the kids would be proud of their heritage of course assuming the students were of that pursuasion ethnically.

So my friend concluded that the curriculum was 1) not related to the racial background of the students in that school so that point of the curriculum was not relevant to the children's lives; 2) the reading issue with the parents was a non-issue; 3) this was not a general 'help kids to read' program and 4) the kids in town were not having any big problem with reading.

My friend guessed that maybe the curriculum company had trouble selling their expensive product to the cities with tighter budgets so they set about to sell this to small towns with wealthy residents with bigger wallets.

From a relative who is a public school teacher in a CT town I have learned that much time and money goes into teacher training that is done by the curriculum companies. They come in with revised programs and mandate that the teachers all need new training. That training is expensive and that saps up the education budget. Instead of the old fashioned basics of education that relied on the teacher's wits and a blackboard these new systems rely on towns constantly buying new curriculums and retraining all the teachers on how to use the new program. That is expensive.

Plus that new way of doing things leads to fad teaching.

Kim said...

School boards seem to drool all over themselves to spend other people's money!

What a great research job. I'm so glad to see someone paying attention to the facts. I wonder if the board took the advice to save themselves some money.

Thanks so much for showing that this type of thinking is not isolated.