Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Plato's Disciples

I’m not a fan of Plato. I believe he was, at heart, a fascist. He preferred “philosopher kings” to democratically elected leaders. He was anti-family and a proponent of social engineering. He was a misogynist even by his day’s standards. He was egomaniacal in his belief that philosophers could change human nature and build a utopian society. Hogwash. I adhere to William F. Buckley’s view that we’d be better governed by “the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty.”

I mention Plato because it appears the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District shares his disdain for common sense. Like Plato, our school district prefers a “scientific approach” that is founded, not in science, but upon intellectual hubris.

At the past board meeting I asked about two programs whose combined cost is over $135,000 – Schools Attuned Training and Reading Recovery Teachers-In-Training. On the spot, without any notes or preparation, Kimberley Honnick, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, explained each program in detail including their histories, the organizations involved, the methodologies, and the school district’s need for them. Ms. Honnick is likely the foremost expert on education I have ever met. Yet, I profoundly disagree with her regarding the need for these and similar programs funded by the school district.

Schools Attuned Training is provided by All Kinds of Minds, a non-profit organization founded in 1995 by Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrician and author of “The Myth of Laziness”, and Charles R. Schwab, the noted financier. The basic idea is that every child has strengths and weaknesses. When a child struggles in school, we need to pinpoint his strengths and weaknesses through a “neurodevelopmental profile” and then customize an educational method that plays to his strengths.

The program is touted as scientifically based and highly regarded among educators. But does it actually improve education? Since I can’t find a single study suggesting it does, I would have to say no.

In 2003, All Kinds of Minds hired Dr. Diana L. Montgomery to research the effectiveness of the program by reviewing participant surveys taken during the course. She did not do any follow up to measure the program’s effectiveness in the classroom. This is like measuring the effectiveness of a skydiving course by asking people whether they liked the course and then ignoring whether they survived the jump.

Surely, in the past twelve years, Charles Schwab could have funded a study to clinically prove the effectiveness of this program. But doing so would have risked showing the program is actually ineffective.

So, that’s $75,000 we’re spending on a program to design courses around “neurodevelopmental profiles” even though there’s no scientific basis to believe the program works.

Reading Recovery, created by Marie Clay in 1979, is an early intervention program designed to reduce literacy problems. It, too, focuses on classroom instruction customized to the child’s needs. For the $61,410 spent on the program, the school district could have purchased nearly 3,000 copies of “Reading Recovery: A Guidebook for Teachers in Training” from Amazon.com at a price of $21.50 per copy, shipping included. You would have to buy the book since neither the Matawan-Aberdeen Library nor any library associated with the Middlesex Automation Consortium carries a copy of this “bestseller”.

Does Reading Recovery work? In 1995, Reading Research Quarterly published a study by Dr. Timothy Shanahan and Dr. Rebecca Barr that states Reading Recovery “is less effective and more costly than has been claimed, and does not lead to systemic changes in classroom instruction, making it difficult to maintain learning gains.”

In a 2002 review of prior studies, Dr. Aleidine J. Moeller, the Director of the Teachers College Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, stated the following:

  • “Evaluations with a controlled group find that children who return to the classroom as successfully ‘recovered’ students immediately begin falling behind. Their learning rate is slower than that of other low achieving children.”
  • “Even with the best classroom instruction, there will still be some students who don’t make adequate progress and need additional, more intensive instruction. Reading Recovery has not met the needs of these lowest performing students.”
  • “[B]y virtue of the number of students who can be reached, Reading Recovery is at least 200% more expensive than other first grade interventions.”
  • “[S]tudents in Reading Recovery may experience problems with self-esteem when they do not perform well.”
  • “[In 23 years,] Reading Recovery has not changed as a result of new research on reading.”
In summary, Reading Recovery is an expensive program that is more likely to harm than help the child.

A key point to remember is that the $135,000 dollars spent on training do not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on additional teachers to provide the one-on-one mentoring these programs require.

Why would the faculty so strongly support these programs? Because teachers love one-on-one programs. Individualized programs create the need to hire more teachers and give teachers the emotional reward of seemingly helping a child. Whether the students actually benefit appears largely irrelevant.

Why would the school board vote to support such programs? Because they don’t do their homework. The school board doesn't research the programs they fund with our tax dollars.

Plato asked an interesting question – Why are intellectuals so often ineffectual leaders? He answered by saying that intellectuals are accustomed to the light of day while most of the world operates in darkness, i.e. ignorance. Intellectuals, according to Plato, find it difficult to work in darkness.

I disagree. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough light. The problem is that too many intellectuals choose to close their eyes to reality. >>> Read more!


Truth In Matawan said...

Great job, Aberdeener, and though we don't want to go too far the other way with putting NON-intellectuals in positions of authority (insert obvious joke re:commander-in-chief), there is great merit to what you say.

I have to ask though, by way of follow-up, did you present these findings of ineffectiveness back to the board and Ms.Honnick? Or were these researched after the meeting--and if that's the case, do you intend to present them then at the next board meeting?

This last one you can't answer, but I wonder why is that not one board member can do the research you have done, and shoot down these wasteful and quite frankly harmful programs? Is it that they're too scared of the union to dare so no to one thing?

Aberdeener said...

The board's agendas are only published the day of the meeting so there's not much time to prepare. To my knowledge, the board has not researched these programs.

Members of the board do read my blog but they're afraid to confront the unions without community support.

At the moment, the primary issue before the board is the budget. The board is taking a zero-base approach, meaning they start with zero and then need to justify each item being added. Since everyone on the board expects the budget to keep going up, don't expect to see any tax relief.

Anonymous said...


I'd like to address your comments about the Schools Attuned Program--that it is not research-based and it leads to needing more staff to offer more targeted instruction to students.

You may have missed the Research section as you perused the All Kinds of Minds web site. The following link provides access to several documents discussing our reliance on rigorous research and describing nearly 20 independent studies about the program's effectiveness for students, teachers and schools. For starters, you may want to review the 2-page "Research Snapshot" to get a broad sense of findings from the independent research to date. For further detail, the 41-page "Comprehensive Research Base" is also at your disposal. Here's the link: http://www.allkindsofminds.org/Research/Index.aspx

By way of background, when the Schools Attuned program was designed for national roll-out in 2000, we based it on three "legs" supporting the fact that it is a research-based program.

The core content, the neurodevelopmental approach to understanding learning and learning variation, is linked to scientifically-based research from clinical, behavioral and educational sciences
The core design is based on research on adult learning and the findings from studies on professional development that have demonstrated an impact on changing teaching practice
There is a strong commitment to both ongoing program evaluation as well as rigorous independent research designed to examine the impact of our programs on students, teachers, families, schools, and educational policies. Please note that our web site invites independent researchers to contact us.

As your blog stated, Dr. Diana Montgomery worked for our organization in 2003. But, her role was to compile results from participant evaluations only and was specifically not to assess program effectiveness. However, there were several other studies that began before and during this time period that were conducted by independent researchers for the purpose of examining program effectiveness. Our approach is that ongoing program evaluation via post-course participant surveys (such as was compiled through Dr. Montgomery's work) -- and program effectiveness research are two entirely different things. The results of both provide important information to our organization. Again, our dedication to building a comprehensive research agenda and the results of findings from research conducted to date are described in detail on our website and we hope that you find it informative.

Second, the purpose of delivering our programs to schools is to increase educators' expertise about learning based on latest clinical, scientific and educational research. We build "learning expertise" the way other programs and courses help teachers continue to build "content expertise". This enables current staff to make more informed instructional decisions about what works best-- for whole classes, small groups and individuals. Some school districts who have fully embraced this program have reported cost savings by having less referrals for special education services, not cost increases.

We appreciate Ms. Honnick's support of our program and look forward to hearing about the results of our work with Aberdeen.


Tamara Nimkoff, Ph.D.
Program Manager
Research and Evaluation
All Kinds of Minds

Aberdeener said...

Ms. Nimkoff,

I appreciate the information and have reviewed the resource section on your website. However, I have not found anything that would meet the criteria of a scientific study.

At a bare minimum, a scientific study requires:
1) An independent researcher
2) A statistically significant sample size
3) A control group
4) A time period that covers program participation and post-participation (i.e. what was the impact years after completing the program)
5) Objective measurable standards
6) Peer review

Using the above criteria, would you please provide me a scientific study demonstrating the benefits of the Schools Attuned Training Program? I'd be quite eager to review it.

Aberdeener said...

I should clarify my remarks. I saw scientific research you have incorporated into your program.

I have not seen any well regarded scientific studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the Schools Attuned Training Program.

Anonymous said...

Aberdeener -- You and Truth have a nice love affair going on. He's your one person cheering section. It's so nice to see him endorse everything you say because it sounds so reasonable -- even though you understand little of what you blab about on here.

If you can do ...
If you can't .. teach...
If you can't teach .... become an administrator...
If you can't become an administrator .. serve on the board
If you can't serve on the board .. rant on a blog that a handful of people read

Truth In Matawan said...

Realty Test, did your past your realty test? Are you now a realtor? Do you offer free appraisals and comparative analysis?

I know the "common sense" approach to governance is hard for those entrenched in the old system to understand. Worse yet, when they do understand it, they tend to shun it as it is different from the system that perpetuates their power structure. But the people of Matawan and Aberdeen deserve competent leadership both at the municipal level and even more importantly at the school board level. Incompetent teachers also fall into this category as well, as they want their raise, no matter what, and the idea of a merit-based pay system, as much of the rest of the world adheres to, is abhorrent to them. "Just give me tenure and a raise for every year of my working career and a pension for every year of my post-work career and don't ask me to fairly and honestly assess my results with the children whose futures have been entrusted with me." I wonder why the Matawan-Aberdeen school district, despite ZERO fiscal restraint and spending on every program brought before it and spending on every "special training" for teachers and administrators brought before it, continues to put up such abysmal results in comparison to our neighboring communities? When you're done studying for your realty exam, please let us know the answers to these questions, as you seem to have all the answers, wittily expressed in the form of a truism.

I don't know what's the bigger disgrace, the sorry state of our education system, or the fact that 95% of Matawan and Aberdeen residents are so ignorant, they have no clue, and that's why we get the pathetic turnouts we do for the school board elections. You say "serve on the board" as if everyone has that option, when in reality there are only a handful of seats available.

As for the tired "those who can't..." trope, at Truth in Matawan, we are "doing" every single day, and from Aberdeener's blog--which no one save you and your Realty friends are reading--,I'd deduce he's a "do-er" as well.