Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Some Debate over Dumbing Down

Bonnie Armbruster, a researcher at the University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading, last month ran an experiment in which she gave a group of adults 20 paragraphs from sixth-grade texts. "Their instructions," says Armbruster, "were to underline the main idea—if they could find it—and if they couldn't, then to write one of their own." The grownups flunked on both counts: the content was so disjointed they could not pick out a main idea. "They couldn't believe these excerpts were from real textbooks," Armbruster adds.

But the books are real, and they are the product of a process that outgoing Secretary of Education Terrel Bell has labeled the "dumbing down" of study materials for U.S. classrooms. Significantly, in a study at Harvard of sample texts and standardized test scores for Grades 1,8 and 11, Reading Expert Jeanne Chall discovered a correlation between textbook quality and learning. "We saw that in the years SAT scores went down," she says, "the year before, textbooks had also declined," The roots of dumbing down go back to the 1920s, when schools began systematic testing of students and concluded that the curriculum was too hard. "They made the curriculum easier," says Chall, "and they made it easier, and they made it easier." The principal target was the textbook, which provides from 75% to 90% of the curriculum content. A key instrument was a set of readability formulas designed to measure the difficulty of a text. Most of the formulas are based on three factors: word length, sentence length and the number of uncommon words. For example, a 15-word sentence or a three-syllable word may be rated too tough for first grade.

No sooner were the formulas created by reading specialists than the details hardened into a doctrine by which educators judged the books they would allow in classrooms. Moreover, the formulas hatched lists of specific words and sentences deemed inappropriate. Subordinate clauses and connectives became no-nos up to certain levels; even topic sentences vanished. Textbook Expert Harriet Bernstein of the Council of Chief State School Officers points out that the word because does not appear in most American schoolbooks before the eighth grade. "And," she adds, "you can imagine what that does to the text."

What these rules do to a text is create horrors like Modern Curriculum Press's "Tap, tap, tap . . ." story for first-graders, an adaptation of the classic fairy tale The Shoemaker and the Elves, in which the words elves, shoemaker and shoes do not appear. In the same way, the frogfish, from Ginn & Co.'s Across the Fence, is a creature of formula writing, whose intent may be simplification but whose consequence is too often mystification. That mystification is compounded by ethnic, religious, political and other groups that have lobbied their attitudes and taboos into texts. In Maryland, Tom Sawyer no longer says "honest injun." Just "honest." And the bland Watergate reference from McGraw-Hill's fifth-grade social-studies textbook United States is a result of the almost universal avoidance of controversy in textbooks.

Most critics of dumbing down have found it easiest to blame publishers. But the fact is that publishers try to produce what their customers want. Twenty-two states, including Texas and California, whose combined purchases account for nearly 16% of the $1.1 billion market, have statewide adoption codes weighted with formulas and taboos. Since it may cost up to $20 million to to develop a major, text-based study program, publishers have to cater to the rules of the big states. Moreover, much of the pressure for simplified texts has come from overworked or undertrained teachers who need something easy to handle in class. This is particularly true in such states as California and Texas, with high percentages of foreign-born or ghetto students with poorly developed language skills.

In San Francisco last month, Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, voiced the wide spread frustration with the textbook dilemma when he asked a convocation of 43 educators and 50 representatives from 16 publishing houses, "Who is in charge?" The answer is everybody and nobody. Certainly not Honig, though his voice has been one of the loudest and most persistent calling for textbook reform. In his own state, below fifth grade a zoo story may not include such words as beaver, parrot, goat — and zoo. A California anti-junk-food lobby's taboo still limits references to ice cream, cake and pie. "I'm all for good eating," says Illinois Reading Specialist Jean Osborn, "but for a child in a story not to be able to have a birthday cake?"

Honig remains confident of impending change. At the conference he told publishers of new, higher standards, outlined in two pamphlets approved by the state board of education. But industry representatives are skeptical. "We've heard a number of times that things were going to change," says Roger Rogalin, editor in chief of D.C. Heath & Co. Yet the formulas remain in place. "It's a catch-22 situation," sums up Bernstein. "Until the states stop requiring readability formulas, publishers won't stop using them to write and edit texts."

More here

The bell curve rediscovered

British children reaching age 3 without being able to say a word, survey finds -- which is very much what you would expect from the normal (bell curve) distribution of IQ. Age of learning to speak is a good indicator of IQ and the small number (4% is quoted below) of VERY low IQ individuals must be expected to be very slow to speak. Heredity strikes again

Children are reaching the age of 3 without being able to say a word, according to a survey that also found boys are almost twice as likely to struggle to learn to speak as girls. The average age for a baby to speak their first word is 10 to 11 months. However, a significant minority (4 per cent) of parents reported that their child said nothing until they were 3.

Toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3 should be able to use up to 300 words, including adjectives, and be able to link words together, according to I CAN, the children’s communication charity. Late speech development can lead to problems, such as low achievement at school or mental health problems.

The survey of more than 1,000 parents found that a child’s background was not a factor in how quickly they learnt to talk. Working parents who put their babies in day care are just as likely to have a child whose speech develops late as those who leave their baby in front of the television.

More here

Australian conservative leader defends government private school subsidies and 6pc fee hike

OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott has defended the public subsidisation of elite private schools and said they have the right to increase fees. "Well in the end these are private institutions and it's up to them to decide what their fees should be,” he said in a radio interview today.

Mr Abbott was responding to a report in The Australian today showing wealthy private schools are increasing fees by an average of 6 per cent this year despite acknowleding parents are feeling the pinch.

The Opposition Leader also defended the introduction under the Howard Government of the SES funding model that is set to deliver non-government schools $28 billion in taxpayers' money between 2009 and 2012. “Every Australian child is entitled to government assistance towards his or her education,” he said.

“Now, whether people choose to utilise that assistance by going to a public school or whether they choose to go to a private school and receive a reduced level of support, but nevertheless a substantial level of support, that's up to the parents of the child, so we don't support these schools because we think they should be free or almost free we support these schools because every kid is entitled to get government support towards an education.

“Now, obviously it would be better if fees were lower and the increases were less but in the end it is up to these schools to make their own decision on”.


1 comment:

Larry Sheldon said...

I wish you read the comments.

I wish you would post items as separate postings to facilitate comments and referrals.

regarding the "bell curve" item, I wonder if anybody besides me has read "The Einstein Syndrome"?