Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A bias against academic rigor

I've written a lot about the mindset of the "progressive education philosophy."

Among the central tenets is that academic rigor is to be avoided because learning must be fun. Joe Terry Olsenon, a retired Portland teacher turned education blogger gives us a great example of this viewpoint in a recent blog post.

He laments the trend toward bringing academic rigor to kindergarten classes, saying:

"It's a sad day ... when academic rigor seeps into the kindergarten classroom, and the joy of learning seeps out."

There it is: academic rigor means the joy of learning is gone. That explains the progressive education establishment's longstanding attack on traditional academic content and delivery.

I would like Olsenon to visit one of my Arthur Academies, where we teach kindergartners to read by providing them a rigorous program in directly taught phonics. He would see very excited children in small groups, led by a teacher, happily participating in the day's lesson.

Each day they learn another precisely calibrated morsel of skill and knowledge that build upon each other to form the foundation of reading fluency. They are having fun.

They are succeeding, and learning to read. And they love it. Learning is fun for them.

It is a far cry from what Olsen obviously thinks of a kindergarten classroom that focuses on academics. He apparently thinks that children can only be having fun and enjoy learning when they are discovering things on their own through play and activities.

In other words, when they aren't being taught anything.

It is an interesting viewpoint, but sadly it is pervasive in the public school system and it has done great damage to our children.


Ed Dennis said...

good post Rob. I will go read his too, but in general I agree that we can have higher expectations and that we should --- and -- it can be fun too!

That is what you are saying, agree?

Rob Kremer said...

It's not just about "high expectations" although I agree totally that this is essential.

But the disagreement is around what is appropriate for young children in the classroom. The progressive crowd believe they have high expectations. They just do not believe in what might be called rigorous academic focus in which skills and knowledge are taught, drilled and tested. Pretty much at any grade, but they especially abhor it in kindergarten.

But they misunderstand and mischaracterize the kinds of drill done with programs such as Arthur Academy uses. The kids LOVE it. Why? Because they ALL succeed!

Every kid can master the progression of skills if they are started at the correct place and are paced at the appropriate speed for their current level of achievement and ability.

But to progressives, this is anathema. It requires grouping kids by ability for the 45 minute instructional periods so they can move at a pace tailored to their level.

Progressive educators hate ability grouping kids. They want them all together under the fantasy that no kid's self esteem will be damaged by being in a group that is moving more slowly than others.

This of course is nonsense. It is far worse to have kids of all abilities together, because then the less facile of them constantly measure themselves against those who are at a higher level. Nothing shuts a kid down faster.

You really have to see it done. In fact, you and Susan really oughtta visit one of our schools.

Honestly, nothing explains what we do and how we do it like seeing it.

Terry Olson said...

Hey, Rob, if you're going to cite my blog and my opinions as representative as all that is wrong with "progressive" education, at least get the simple facts right. Like my name.

And then read this post. And maybe this one.

Ed said...

I would love to visit one of the Arthur schools...I will ask my assistant to schedule something for me prior to the end of the school year.

Rob Kremer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob Kremer said...

OK I fixed your name - sorry.

The post in which Direct Instruction is discussed is a classic example of complete and total mischaracterization about DI.

Clearly you and Yatvin have never actually witnessed DI being used in a classroom, or you would have never uttered such blatantly false statements.

To say that students are "passive" in the instruction is astounding. They are engaged, energized, and actively responding to a series of several hundred prompts given by the teacher each and every lesson!


And for you to trot out the same old canard about DI teaching kids to recognize words but not their meaning is demonstrably false as well.

Decoding is a skill that involves understanding the phonetic code. Comprehension is a skill that depends on vocabulary. You can easily decode (read) a word you don't understand.

And that is how the progressives like to characterize DI - as if we teach kids to decode words, and never work on vocabulary! That is simply untrue, and those who claim it are either knowingly lying or simply ignorant.

The irony is that comprehending what you read requires that you can both decode the words and have the vocabulary to understand what those words mean. The progressives like to pretend that DI doesn't teach the vocabluary essential to comprehension- while they themselves avoid teaching the decoding necessary for reading the words in the first place!

To say that DI is "teacher proof" is another ignorant statement. DI is far, far more demanding on the teacher than the progressives' favored methods, which I will call Whole Language.

Our teachers go through rigorous training to teach them what the curriculum and methodology requires of them. It is exacting and difficult to do. Most people simply are not up to it.

And you say DI is boring for students and teachers! Again, come see it in action. You won't see ANY bored children.

As for teachers - no it is not boring, it is hard work that requires faithfully implementing the methods and the lessons. And that, I suspect, is the primary objection most college of education educated teachers have to DI.

They don't want to follow a curriculum that has been carefully and precisely sequenced and paced, with specific skills and knowledge taught and drilled to mastery in a specific way.

Progressives hate that, because they think it takes away their creativity in deciding how kids should be taught and what they are taught.

Progressives fancy themselves independent curriculum and instruction experts, able to create and implement their own unique approach to teaching reading.

Sorry. Curriculum development for a reading program is incredibly involved, at least if done right. I am not willing to put that in the hands of the teacher any more than I am willing to tell doctors that they can create their own medical treatments and disregard the specific courses of therapy that have been developed by their profession.

I invite you, Terry Olson, to visit an Arthur Academy and witness the reading instruction in our kindergartens.

Lois A. said...

I have so many thoughts swimming around after reading the O article and Rob's post. As a mom of young kids, one in Kindergarten right now, I love the Kindergarten class my daughter is in right now. Her teacher is wonderful, fun and loving toward the kids. There are books everywhere, art projects and all kinds of fun ways for my daughter to acclimate to school (I don't believe in pre-school, but that is another subject entirely). However, I am also frustrated. The plan seems to be teach the kids their letters, sounds and some common sight words until Christmas break (oh excuse me Winter Break) and then instead of teaching useful patterns and decoding methods to build on these skills, my daughter brings home books that have repetitive words that she has basically memorized. I don't understand! What is the point of that? I had to spend an entire Summer reteaching my son to look at the letters of the word and sound it out instead of looking at the picture and guessing. This is all a frustrating waste of time.

Rob Kremer said...

Welcome to the world of Whole Language. They WILL NOT teach your child to read. He may indeed learn to read, but it will not be because his teachers taught him.

You are going to have to do it yourself, which it sounds as if you have already realized and started doing.

They actually do teach kids to guess at words they do not know. It is idiotic.

If you read the very first link in my post, it will explain a good deal of the philosophy that underlies Whole Language. I have been down this road you are on. You can learn from my experience, which the article explains.

Terry said...

Hey Rob!

The only thing "idiotic" about "whole language" is your totally unfounded (and idiotic) assertion that it fails to teach kids to read.

In the world according to Kremer, we'd all be illiterates if it weren't for Direct Instruction. It's surprising that anyone learned to read before Siegfried Engelhart published his scripted curriculum.

Terry said...

My mistake Rob. This time I got the name wrong. Its Engelmann, NOT Engelhart.

Rob Kremer said...

It might be YOUR reading skills that are not up to snuff....

You write that in my world we'd all be illiterates if not for DI....

But what I wrote to Lois was: "He may indeed learn to read, but it will not be because his teachers taught him."

Which is to say that a lot of kids learn to read no matter how they are instructed. Research bears this out.

But about 40% of kids need explicit, comprehensive, direct, intensive and systematic phonics in order to be fluent readers.

Have you ever seen the Project Follow Through research? Have you seen the accumulated 30 years of research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, much of it conducted by Reid Lyon?

It all bears out my assertions.

Lois A. said...

Thanks for the encouragement Rob. Yes, so far I have taught my children to read. They have not learned this at school. My mother who taught Kinder and 1st grade for almost 30 years has helped me by providing materials and encouragement (mainly a set of books which provides my kids practice in patterns and decoding) What is telling to me is that in my daughter's 4th grade class there are several students who are struggling with reading at any level much less grade level. And I believe our school is an excellent one, good teachers, lots of parent involvement, but why oh why is it acceptable to let these kids fall so far behind? My mom's goal for every first grader in her class was to read by the end of the year. I remember her working hard, taking classes and trying to figure out strategies for teaching her students. What did she end up with after all these years of experience? Phonics: learning patterns of language, sounds, blends and lots of practice. I am with you Rob, teaching kids to guess at words is NOT reading

Anonymous said...

I'm still undoing what the school's whole language did to my son. How hard is it to ask kids to "sound it out"?

Whole Language is to reading what Freddie Kruger is to dreams. A bad combination. 40% of the kids should not be under "teach and hope" method of teaching. Now that REALLY doesn't help their self-esteem.

Rob Kremer said...

I always wonder what people like Terry Olsen have as a response to parents who lament what Whole Language did to their children. They never have a response.

Interestingly, parents of kids who are in a DI program almost NEVER complain about their kids not learning to read.

I guess parents don't complain about things that work.

crallspace said...

How are you going to dictate what progressives believe about education?

I resent that. I am a progressive, and I don't think kids should just be left to themselves and not learn. What a ridiculously stupid statement!

Rob Kremer said...


I'm not "dictating" anything. I simply described the philosophy of "progressive education," which is completely accurate.

I think you are confusing "progressive education philosophy" with "progressive political philosophy."

Not all political progressives share the progressive education philosophy. Perhaps you don't - and I know many political liberals who do not. E.D. Hirsch, who wrote the book "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them" being one of them.

gus miller said...

No one is saying "DI or bye-bye". I strongly believe that DI (Phonics) is the way the majority of kids learn the alphabet and to read. Early-on in the DI process kids who need hearing or vision assistance or are "differently-abled" learners should be identified and assisted in ways that enable their educations.

The critical brain development and learning years are ages 4-10. Learn to read by grade 3 and read to learn for a lifetime. It ain't all that complicated as my unschooled Irish great-grandmother who learned early childhood education theory as a nanny for wealthy families in Westchester County NY used to tell new mothers in our family.

Anonymous said...

DI was started by progressives (democrats) - ask Engelmann and Carnine.

DI does not teach letters in a tradition sense. It teaches letter/sounds in a systematic method.

Anonymous said...

If Terry Olson's beliefs are representative of even 30% of the education establishment we are in deep deep trouble.

Anonymous said...

Terry - I hope you'll take Rob up on his offer to visit one of his Arthur Academy schools.

gus miller said...

For an excellent review of DI see:

Anonymous said...

Rob...I have always lamented my inability to read and write at the speed my fellow students could as well as my wife, son and grandaughter do now. Until I read your blog I thought maybe I was dislexic or something because it wasn't as easily detected in the 50's and 60's when I went to school. Now I realize its because I'm a progressive democrat. Those evil doers.
Wait...that cann't be right...I used to be a stupid republican that was slow too. hmmmm. lol

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