One of the flagship programs of the No Child Left Behind law was called Reading First.
The Bush Administration invested over a billion dollars (that's with a 'b', as in boy), a billion dollars a year between 2002 and 2008 to improve the reading skills of students in kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Reading First required "scientifically proven programs" so, on the face of it, it sounds like a good goal pursued wisely.
Yet, on May 7th, 2008, Education Week reported on a major federal study of the program that found, and I quote:
The $1 billion-a-year Reading First program has had no measurable effect on students’ reading comprehension, on average, although participating schools are spending significantly more time teaching the basic skills that researchers say children need to become proficient readers.
from Reading First Doesn't Help Pupils 'Get it'
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo,
Education Week Associate Editor
So, that investment caused more teaching time devoted to certain basic skills for reading, namely decoding.
But, that focus on delivering that particular skill did not help the children to better comprehend what they read.
In March 2009, the funding for Reading First was eliminated.
Reference For Reading First Defunding
The omnibus 2009 spending bill recently passed by the House zeroes-out funding for Reading First, the Bush administration’s flagship early literacy program.From Last Rites for Reading First By Andrew J. Coulson,
Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute
Over $6 billion dollars gone and they failed to produce meaningful improvements.
How could such a huge, science-informed investment fail so miserably?
That waste of six billion dollars is just one of the more spectacular symptoms of a major problem in education with two root causes.
The first root cause is the use of vanity metrics instead of actionable metrics to assess the intended improvements in learning.
In case you are not familiar with the term, "vanity metrics" refers to gathering data that gives you the illusion of knowing something useful.
The term was coined by entrepreneur Eric Ries to explain why so many start-up businesses fail.
The idea is that if you are an entrepreneur and you don't figure out how to get actionable data then you will most likely fail.
Actionable data is data that tells you what you need to do to improve an important business process.
Vanity metrics are widespread throughout much of our society, so it is not surprising to find it in education.
And scientists are not immune to the problem of vanity metrics.
Scientists have sophisticated arguments for justifying whatever metric they favor, but their sophisticated argumentation can deceive practitioners about the usefulness of those metrics.
The science behind Reading First programs included clear evidence showing they could help children "decode."
But reading involves a lot more than decoding skills.
The Reading First crew had an impoverished concept of what it takes to learn to read.
And that $6 billion dollar failure occurred because those programs were embedded in a system that enforces an impoverished concept of learning.
That misunderstanding of how learning works is the second and most important root cause of the Reading First debacle.
It was a paradigm that led Reading First policy makers AND their scientific advisors to suppose that, with the right combination of instructional delivery techniques and targeted incentives, they could productively improve the learning outcomes for young children.
That misunderstanding has been pointed out by critics for at least one hundred years by the likes of John Dewey and Paulo Friere.
But, what has been missing from that critical dialogue has been a replacement concept.
If learning is not delivery, then what is it?
Fortunately, we have learned a lot more about learning since Dewey and Friere were writing their criticisms.
Ironically, the scientists who study learning do not seem to realize yet that they have arrived at a new paradigm for learning.
They all talk about learning using terms that are consistent with what I call the “growing mental maps” paradigm.
The two models completely contradict each other and are utterly incompatible, yet the harmful and rejected delivery paradigm continues to guide many schools and is still the only model that is reflected in public policy.
In Part 2 I will explain the failed delivery paradigm that informed Reading First, then in Part 3 I will explain the growing mental maps paradigm and how it would have better informed the Bush Administration and could have prevented the waste of 6 billion dollars on Reading First.
Welcome to part 2 of 3.
I have provocatively titled this episode The Franken-School Monster in order to highlight how the system of education in the United States is a hodge-podge of cobbled together ideas that are having unintended harmful effects on children.
I want to emphasize that the monstrosity of the system is embodied in policies like Reading First, not in people.
The harms being done by the system are caused by the interaction between policies and brains.
The brains are doing what brains have always done, but the ways that the policies are guiding behaviors is causing harm.
The best leverage for productive change is in the policy arena.
Let's think about the Franken-School Monster in terms of the Reading First program.
First of all, it was a given that there were teachers who were charged with delivering the decoding skills to kids.
But there was no recognition that the teachers were anything other than a mechanical algorithm that possessed the decoding skills.
Teachers are not people, they are teacher-bots.
A teacher-bot's job is either to get the decoding skill out of their brain into the instruction pump so that it could be reliably transferred into the brains of their students.
Or, in some cases, it was never expected to be in their heads in the first place.
So they were just expected to operate the instructional mechanism without adding value.
This is also known as teacher-proof curriculum.
The instruction pump system is not capable of dealing with curious little boys and girls with unique personalities, so the instruction pump treats them as mechanical systems, too.
They are treated as kid-bots.
So the teacher-bots operate the instruction pump which then delivers those skills into the brains of the kid-bots.
In order to ensure that this miracle of immaculate transmission actually occurs, the kid-bots are periodically required to regurgitate their learning by performing on tests.
The data from the tests are gathered up and analyzed by admin-bots who are responsible for adjusting the incentive pumps in order to manipulate the teacher-bots and kid-bots into producing the proper patterns in the data.
This is a nice feedback loop that should be capable of producing whatever pattern of data the policy makers want.
You will notice that in the mainstreams of media and education politics there are only six things that are considered crucial to getting schools to work better.
All it takes is better teachers, better instruction, better students, better tests, better administrators, or better incentives.
And if learning worked like an algorithmic feedback process, then this would be a great plan.
But learning doesn't work this way, so no matter how big the budget is, investments relying on this model will fail to produce consistent improvements in learning.
In fact, some of the Reading First programs actually did produce some positive results.
That happened because sometimes there are some key factors of actual learning that accidentally get rolled into the delivery programs.
For instance, if a particular program for decoding skills incidentally increased the quality of the network of caring relationships that students experience in school, then the kids subjected to that particular program will learn better.
In part 3 it will become clear why that is the case.
This is not an unprecedented situation.
In the fight against communicable diseases by the medical profession, this same kind of thing happened when miasma theory was the generally accepted model.
Back before what we know today as germ theory was properly articulated, there were lots of efforts to prevent death and cure disease that were only randomly effective.
Given a large enough population with numerous doctors trying whatever techniques they can think of to heal their patients, then the laws of probability would predict that some of them will accidentally happen upon techniques that bolster healing.
But the same odds predict that overall there will be just as many techniques that cause more harm than good.
The overall result remains statistically dismal.
Even when Ignaz Semmelweiss demonstrated in the late 1840's how hand washing could save lives, it made individual differences but not a large scale statistical difference.
The statistical difference was only made after the germ theory of disease became the paradigm that guided public policy.
History provides two stories from the transformation of medicine in support of the view that policy is crucial to this kind of situation.
First, the fight against epidemics of cholera in London between 1848 and 1874 and second in the changes in medical practice between 1910 and the 1940's.
I refer you to the books The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and Bad Medicine by David Wootton for more detail.
In 1848 in London authorities passed the Nuisances Removal and Communicable Disease Prevention Act.
This was a law that mandated the elimination of open cess pools and the connection of the newly invented flush toilets to the storm water system.
The problem was that London stank and, over the previous 16 years, tens of thousands of people had died from epidemic outbreaks of cholera.
Given that everyone believed in the miasma theory of disease, it was “obvious” that the bad smells were the cause of those epidemics.
The only problem was that the storm water system thereafter effectively delivered immense amounts of raw sewage into the drinking water of over two-thirds of the city.
The epidemic outbreak in 1854, six years later, was the worst ever in London and killed many more people than it otherwise would have if they had left things the way they were.
But that outbreak also inspired Dr. John Snow to investigate one of the neighborhoods that was hit hardest by the outbreak with the help of a local clergyman, who was skeptical of Dr. Snow's radical ideas about the cause of the outbreak.
Together they discovered a pattern of data that logically disproved the miasma theory and eventually lead to what we now know as germ theory.
But the discovery was initially dismissed by the authorities.
They did not become convinced of Dr. Snow's ideas until the early 1860's when they finally decided to invest in the creation of a separate sewer system that would ensure drinking water and raw sewage would not mix.
There was another outbreak of cholera in 1874 which was alarming since they had made such a huge investment in new infrastructure.
But the outbreak was very limited and was eventually traced to two specific points in the new sewer system.
The data, in fact, provided further clear evidence that some kind of particle in the water had to be the source of the disease because those two points were places where the system was not operational.
The pattern once again vindicated germs, not miasma.
London has not had another outbreak of cholera since 1874.
Over one hundred years without an outbreak is the result of public policy guided by germ theory.
But with the vindication of the germ theory and its final articulation about the same time, you might expect that medical practitioners would have immediately transformed their practices.
But that is not how human beings work.
By medical historian David Wooton's estimation, the adoption of germ theory was not in full force in medical practice for over 60 more years.
In the United States, the transformation was finally initiated by the Flexner report in 1910.
The report lamented that amongst over 150 medical schools operating at the time, training in biological science (and therefore germ theory) was extremely rare.
All medical approaches (homeopathy, osteopathy, allopathy, electrotherapy, etc.) were all on equal standing and most relied on an apprenticeship model with little or no grounding in scientific practice.
The Flexner report lead to policy changes in the accreditation system for medical schools.
The changes in accreditation, which included requirements for laboratory facilities, forced over half of the schools to close or merge by 1935.
Those few that were left produced a new generation of doctors who were trained in scientific practice (not just told theories) and, unlike their predecessors, readily adopted the antiseptic and aseptic procedures that germ theory requires as a foundation for effective medical practice.
It took over 20 years for the policy changes inspired by the Flexner report to bring medical practice in the United States into full alignment with germ theory.
In education I believe we are in the equivalent of the early 1860's.
There are practices that have been proven to be effective, but the policies and the common everyday understanding of the education process undermine the acceptance of those practices and perpetuate the policies that produce Franken-School Monsters.
We are just now realizing that a new paradigm is available and it has not yet arrived in public policy.
In part 3 I will explain the growing mental maps theory of education that declares well-being to be the foundation and how it could have prevented the Reading First debacle.
Welcome to Part 3.
Before I explain the Growing Mental Maps paradigm, I want you to understand what is needed.
For five years I was a volunteer instructor of First Aid and CPR for the Red Cross.
One of the lessons I taught was about the ABC's.
In the context of CPR 'ABC' refers to Airway, Breathing, and Circulation.
The idea is that you have to deal with those things in that order.
If a person's heart has stopped and s/he is not able to breathe through an open airway, then there is no point in manually circulating their blood.
The circulation of blood that does not have any oxygen in it is useless.
This is called an order of operations problem.
If you fail to do the operations in the proper order, then you will not get the results you want.
That is what is happening in most of our schools.
They are failing at the order of operations.
You will see what I mean momentarily.
The model of learning I am sharing with you starts from the concern for how we humans get from the now moment into future moments in a way that enables us to affect the new nows that follow.
Learning requires a feedback loop and the feedback loop needs to be one that is meaningful to all the humans that participate in it.
The learning tree has eight roots in the now moment, called the soil of the situation here.
Those eight roots are the primary human needs for air, water, food, shelter, sleep, relatedness, autonomy, and competence.
Primary means that they are not derived from other needs, they have non-neutral effects on well-being, and they are universal across cultures.
The roots come together into the trunk of well-being.
The trunk of well-being is where whatever modicum of need support was found by the roots goes through a process that gives it our unique stamp of individuality.
The aspects of individuality are driven by the energy of motivation through attitude structures by dual mind processes that produce engagement patterns.
Engagement in its various forms creates the branches of experience.
The outer area of the branches is where consciousness occurs and we also find the leaves, flowers, and fruits of outcomes, as well.
I don't know if you know about real trees, but somewhere around 95 to 99 percent of the material substance of a tree comes from thin air.
The seed of a Giant Sequioa is almost microscopic but it can grow up to be one of the largest trees in the world.
And the majority of the material out of which it builds itself is drawn from the air.
Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide gas from the air, uses energy from sunlight to break off the carbon atom to build itself, and then exhales the oxygen.
So the question is: where in this model does the majority of the substance and the input needed to integrate that substance into our individuality come from?
First, the organizations and institutions to which we belong, such as schools and families, are the air that supplies the bulk.
Second, the society, culture, and/or our ancestry are the light that enables us to combine our individuality with our group.
That combination produces the leaves, flowers, and fruit of outcomes that also fall down to be mulched into our new nows.
Thus, the model, so far, covers growing, but, what about maps?
There are actually two kinds of map in this model.
The relationship between where the roots find need support and where that modicum of individuality contributes to the structure of a leaf, flower, or fruit forms the first map.
In healthy circumstances they should be roughly correlated.
The second map in this model is formed by the canopy of leaves, flowers, and fruits.
The individual's conscious ideas about how to attain what they need in life are determined by the shape of their canopy and how that canopy interacts with the canopies of other individuals they encounter.
What might be called the “manifest world” that we consciously experience on a moment-to-moment and day-to-day basis is shaped by the outcomes we produce and how our conceptions of those outcomes are influenced by our context of organizations, institutions, society, culture, and our ancestry.
This growing mental maps model of learning provides us with a basis for a substantive critique of Reading First and suggests better ways to invest six billion dollars.
Recall that at the beginning of this video I talked about how the Red Cross teaches the ABC's of CPR.
If we are trying make the blood circulate for a victim whose heart has stopped when their airway is blocked or they are not breathing, then we are wasting our time and effort.
Even if we pump the blood with chest compressions of great skill and elegance, death is inevitable without oxygen in that blood.
The problem is in the order of operations.
Perfect performance on any given step will still result in dead victims if we do not go through the steps in the right order.
Highly inconsistent results and an overall failure rate are guaranteed when we don't get the order of operations right.
Reading First failed because the delivery model that guided that policy doesn't include well-being, let alone place well-being into an order of operations.
The learning tree model gives us the correct order of operations for education. The first thing to check out when you find a problem with learning is support for primary human needs.
Using the tree model as a method of analysis, we can see that the law makers behind Reading First were trying to make a leaf grow without making sure the roots of the tree were healthy.
In fact, if they had attended to the roots of primary human needs first, then focused on reading second, they would have gotten different results.
When the proper foundation for education is in place, then science-informed investments in targeted areas will pay off.
Reading First might have worked if they had nourished all the roots of the learning tree instead of ignoring them in order to focus on one leaf.
Of course, if policy makers really pay attention to the learning tree, they will also see that reading is a lot more than just decoding text.
In fact, all of the knowledge, skills, and information that the mainstream system attempts to deliver, such as reading, are actually the means to achieve more important goals, they are not ends in themselves.
All that content occurs in the leaves not in the roots.
The true goals are primary need satisfaction within cultural constraints.
Each individual human is unconsciously looking for effective means to pursue goals rooted in primary needs that can only be fully realized by the individual within the culturally relevant affordances provided by the organizations and institutions in which they are embedded.
Educators will serve their students best when they participate in a systematic effort to make it clear to children that their unique individual goals are important so long as they pursue them within the constraints of the cultural and societal context that we share.
To be clear: their uniqueness is just as important as the cultural constraints.
How they inform each other is where goodness, truth, beauty, and joy reside.
And that is what education should ultimately aim for: goodness, truth, beauty, and joy.
If you gave me six billion dollars to invest in education, I would invest it in building the nurturing capacity of K-12 schools, where nurturing is support for primary human needs.
My web site, schools-of-conscience.org, is all about how to build the nurturing capacity of K-12 schools.
Thanks for watching.