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Volume I, Number 4, April, 2003

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© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.

Fuzzy Math
Fuzzy Reading
and Fuzzy Science

by Jamie McKenzie (about the author)

During the last presidential election campaign, President Bush attacked his opponent for budget figures he called "fuzzy math."

This article will examine several examples of fuzzy thinking, science, reading and math emerging as part of the new Federal education law - NCLB/ESEA - as it is being implemented by the ED Department.

Fuzzy Budget Math

It is especially ironic that we now see "fuzzy math" appear in the new Federal budget, as deficit spending and tax breaks for the wealthy become keystones of the administration's policies. Deficit spending is accompanied by a drastic reduction in the amount originally promised to fuel expensive new NCLB mandates.

Whatever happened to a balanced budget and a commitment to domestic priorities?

The failure to fund NCLB at promised levels eliminates one of the main selling points of the original law - the supposed availability of financial assistance and rewards to districts and schools that improve learning results, especially for disadvantaged students.

Inadequate funding combined with tough regulations and new expenditures mandated by NCLB amount to a collapse of policy, especially as the weak Bush Economy has left most states gasping from deficits likely to restrict or choke off the spending needed to build school capacities.

California's budget has been so badly battered by the weak Bush Economy that many districts may be forced to lay off teachers who are badly needed to meet the demands of NCLB:

Mass Layoffs Threatened for Teachers in California
N.Y. Times, April 1

Perhaps it is time to dust off a slogan from a previous administration . . . "It's the economy, Stupid!"

Even Alan Greenspan argued against the need for big tax cuts last month (February 11, 2003) and warned against the dangers of increased deficits.

Without an increase in the capacities of struggling schools and teachers to improve the thinking and learning skills of their students, NCLB will simply fail to meet its professed goals. NCLB will become a wrecking ball.

While the President and the Secretary warn of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," others warn of the hard bigotry of underfunding tough new initiatives. (Houston, 2003 )The School Administrator Web Edition
January 2003. EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE "The Bigotry of Expectations" by Paul D. Houston.

However, let us also be sensitive to the hard bigotry of high expectations for all while some are left at a disadvantage. I have put it this way before—it is one thing to expect people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but first you need to make sure they are wearing boots.

Instead of taking care of children, NCLB is liable to damage them by undermining the public system's already strained capacities.

Loading public schools with regulations and rules that make the Clean Air Act look like a picnic, NCLB will unleash a wave of publicly funded charter and experimental schools that will be exempt from most of those same rules. Many children will taste first hand the risks of fast food education and diploma mills. Virtual schools will deliver virtual learning to many unsuspecting children and families. NCLB transfers the sins of dotcom speculation and false promises into the world of education.

NCLB promoters counter that we can trust families to make wise choices in the educational marketplace, but our recent experience with the stock market provides evidence that marketing professionals can easily entice investors with little more than pipe dreams. Smoke and mirrors may sell dubious schools just as well as they sold worthless stock offerings at the height of the dotcom boom.

Bracey's article in February's issue, "NCLB: Just Say No!" explores these and other NCLB threats in great depth. (Go to article)

One group studying the impact of NCLB on Vermont has recommended turning down the funds . . .

Vermont Society for the Study of Education:
Policy Discussion Paper
The Federal "No Child Left Behind" Law:
Should Vermont Take the Money?

Executive Summary - Governor Howard Dean asked school superintendents to consider whether it was cost-effective to accept the federal "No Child Left Behind" money given the inadequate amount of money and the intrusive mandated programs. This evaluation examines the money Vermont receives compared with the cost of the obligations we would incur, and whether such costs and programs would provide a reasonable and cost-efficient improvement to Vermont's educational system. Using conservative estimates, the new law would require a minimum of $158.2 million in new expenditures to reach the desired goal. However, the federal government only provides a total of $51.6 million. Further, as the law lacks a supporting research foundation, the consensus of independent scholars is that the law is fundamentally unworkable. Therefore, it is financially prudent for Vermont to reject these monies and the associated mandated programs. (Full text in PDF)

While the hidden costs of NCLB exceed rewards, we note fuzzy math, fuzzy thinking and fuzzy claims actually increasing from the Beltway. At times, the selling of NCLB takes on the tone and bravado of some failing dotcom, energy, or telecommunications venture of the previous decade. In a few years, if NCLB is not repealed, we are likely to see educational bankruptcy and red ink that dwarf the losses of Enron, WorldCom, Time Warner/AOL and ATT. But that will depend to some extent on who is doing the accounting!

Fuzzy Reading

It is curious to read that Federal bureaucrats have warned that New York City's choice of a phonics program might be unacceptable for NCLB funding as insufficiently scientific. (See NY Times article) This is Big Brother and Big Sister at their worst. How sad that Federal bureaucrats presume to dictate which reading programs are now permitted. This is autocracy - not democracy!

"We can find no published research indicating that this program has been tested with well-defined groups of kids and shown to be effective," Dr. Lyon said. "And clearly one would want to know those kinds of details before incorporating any program into use."
"Bush Adviser Casts Doubt on the Benefits of Phonics Program" - By Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2003. (Go to article)

The New York City experiment is already highly questionable in its presumption that standardization and uniformity are the best pathway to improvement of student learning. To mandate a single phonics program (except in performing schools) is offensively top-down. Children are not hamburgers, and schools are not fast food restaurants. These simplistic standardization efforts are akin to broiling each burger by recipe. It may work for burgers, but it does not work for children.

We have the arrogance of business leaders presuming to reform a business about which they know very little.

Teaching in limited ways to limited tests can produce impressive short term results on narrow measures that do not transfer to broader, secure measures of performance.

With little educational experience to steer his strategies, the mayor presumes to know best, gambling that his business experience will save the children from the bungling of those actually trained in educational theories. He imposes a factory approach to schooling even though we have no evidence that it will work.

How fitting that others of similar bent may spoil his party - not because he wants a factory approach but because he has picked the wrong one. Non-educators accusing other non-educators of being non-scientific!

Dr. Patricia Cunningham, one of the program's authors, said studies showed little difference between phonics programs, and that what was important was doing phonics instruction systematically as part of a broader program.

But Louisa Moats, who advises states on applications for federal reading instruction funds, predicted that Month by Month would not pass muster. "It's just not in line with what we know works," she said.
"Bush Adviser Casts Doubt on the Benefits of Phonics Program" - By Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2003.

Even as this article went to press, New York City announced it was caving in under the federal pressure (New York Times, April 5, 2003) and adding the phonics program being forced by the feds on many states and districts across the land - the Voyager Expanded Learning program that was announced to New York school officials in July of 2002 as their main choice:

"Phonics Pitch Irks Teachers" (The Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2003)

The Bush administration is making a concerted effort to promote the teaching of phonics in America's classrooms, and in the process, some educators charge, advancing specific commercial reading products.

The NCLB Silver Bullet promotes the myth that we have conclusive, reliable evidence that certain programs will work when installed in particular schools with particular students and delivered by particular teachers. It is simply untrue.

"What Is Evidence-Based Reading Instruction?"
International Reading Association
As we pursue this goal, we must be mindful of the critical lesson provided by investigations of the past and of the present: There is no single instructional program or method that is effective in teaching all children to read. Rather, successful efforts to improve reading achievement emphasize identification and implementation of evidence-based practices that promote high rates of achievement when used in classrooms by teachers with diverse instructional styles with children who have diverse instructional needs and interests (Bond & Dykstra, 1967/1997; National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2001)

The NCLB proponents are using pseudo science to disqualify some of the most promising educational practices of the past century in favor of heavily scripted, banal programs. Ironically, an unambitious and narrowly defined program may have produced good numbers in some places on indicators and measures that fail to measure reading at significant performance level. Looking good on the wrong things could lead to endorsement and lots of profits.

The so-called scientific data supporting favored programs does not stand up to critical review. Note this month's review of Gerald Cole's scathing expose of distortions, inaccuracies and manipulations contained in the report and recommendations of the National Reading Panel. (Go to review of Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies.) Also, note the following:

"The Reading Achievement of Economically-Disadvantaged Children in Urban Schools Using Open Court vs. Comparably Disadvantaged Children in Urban Schools Using Non-Scripted Reading Programs" Margaret Moustafa and Robert E. Land -
California State University Los Angeles
(full text)
We found no evidence that Open Court fosters higher early reading achievement among economically disadvantaged children. At the second grade level, the earliest grade level reported publicly, we found no significant difference in the average SAT 9 reading scores between schools using Open Court and schools using the non-scripted programs serving similarly disadvantaged children.

We also found no evidence that Open Court fosters higher reading achievement generally among economically disadvantaged children. When we looked at the reading scores of all the elementary grades that are publicly reported (second through fifth grade), we found schools that had used Open Court 10 or more years were significantly more likely to be in the bottom quartile of the SAT 9 than schools using non-scripted programs serving similarly disadvantaged children.

In other words, we found no support for the assertion that implementing Open Court leads to higher SAT 9 reading scores. We further found no justification in sacrificing instruction in other curricular areas to implement Open Court.

The findings of this study are consistent with the findings of our reanalysis of children’s reading achievement in Open Court vs. the contemporary reading instruction in the NICHD Houston study in Texas. Altogether, the outcomes in the two school districts suggest that Open Court limits what children are able to achieve in reading relative to what they are able to achieve via many other programs. The outcomes support the professional judgment of the reading / language arts teacher specialists on California’s 1996 Instructional Resources Evaluation Panel who recommended Open Court not be placed on California’s textbook adoption list.

Those of us who have worked with disadvantaged children experiencing difficulties with reading know that the challenge of reversing performance and empowering students is much more complex than the simple prescriptions offered by Federal bureaucrats. Working with students in Harlem in the late 1960s while taking advanced courses in the diagnosis and remediation of reading difficulties at Columbia Teachers College, I quickly discovered there is no simple recipe, so single pill and no panacea.

Each child with reading problems requires customized support. Customization results from two main elements. There needs to be a comprehensive diagnosis to discover what is working and what is not. That diagnosis can then lead to a learning feast concocted to match the child's interests, skills and needs. The richer the teacher's repertoire, the more likely the chance of success. It is the weaving of many different strands that contributes to growth and change.

The party line reading program being force fed to schools by NCLB - "Reading First" - is a highly regimented, factory style approach to learning that cooks each burger (or child" by formula. The trouble is we have no credible evidence that this approach actually works. The various "miracles" claimed by fans of these techniques rarely survive close scrutiny.s

TEACHING CHILDREN TO READ:
An Evidence-Based Assessment
of the Scientific Research Literature
on Reading and Its Implications
for Reading Instruction

NCLB narrows educational choices and strategies by creating an artificial test of scientific reliability that does not belong in the educational environment and does not even work very well in the field of medicine. A Reading Panel commissioned by a non-educational Federal institution, the NIH (National Institute of Health) has been used to label some programs as scientifically based and exclude all others.

The failings of this panel and its loading with proponents of particular reading strategies are fully documented by Joanne Yatvin , writing in Phi Delta Kappan. (See article) She describes the flawed process and skewed findings of this panel on which she served - a panel that is being used to push narrow definitions of acceptable practice by Federal bureaucrats.

The identification of so-called effective programs was accomplished by setting up false selection rules, unreasonable criteria and narrow goals. It was the equivalent of blind judging. The rules effectively eliminated many deserving programs from review (and approval) before anyone even considered them. The rules were tilted toward a narrow definition of reading and a narrow definition of research. The effect was to focus in on programs with great results on limited goals. We suddenly face the specter of strong armed imposition of phonics programs, especially upon urban students in poorly performing schools even though there is little evidence that they become better students in the long run.

For a detailed and thorough critique of the NRP's distorted report, read Gerald Cole's scathing expose of the distortions, inaccuracies and manipulations contained in the report. (Go to review of Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation and Lies.)

Even though the evidence to support just two phonics-based reading programs is full of holes, the NCLB police are already making funding and program approval contingent on adoption of their darlings. This kind of federal intrusion into curriculum choices would be offensive even if the evidence and support for certain programs were compelling, but when the evidence lacks credibility, scholarship and independence, the intrusion and dictation by Big Brother/Sister is especially worrisome.

Fuzzy Science

It is now fashionable for federal bureaucrats to cloak their interference in what amounts to pseudoscience. Unable to marshal sufficient evidence from the more complex world of educational research, these NCLB zealots turn to medical science and claim that the techniques of medical research should replace the flawed methodologies of educators.

Medical science often runs up against quandaries and issues that do not fit into the neat little packages mentioned by the NCLB advocates. Some of the most important medical challenges of our lifetime remain curiously beyond the reach of medical science.

"If only we would copy the research designs of medical science . . ."

For decades, medical science has found it difficult to clarify the best treatments for either breast cancer or prostate cancer. They could not even agree until recently that early detection of prostate cancer was beneficial to men because there was little compelling evidence that any treatment actually enhanced longevity.

Studies of cancer patients are often methodologically flawed. Doctors favoring one treatment may brag about the longevity of their patients and suggest that these results are evidence of their treatment's superiority over others even though they may have hand-selected only the most promising candidates and turned away those with less favorable numbers and conditions.

This is such a perfect example of self-serving pseudo-science. Feather one's nest by skewing results.

The news is filled with reports of medical research "lurches."

For several years women were urged to use hormone supplements in response to menopause as a way of enhancing life quality. Pharmaceutical companies and doctors teamed to sell millions of dollars worth of drugs to women on the presumption of great benefits. The drugs had been approved by the supposedly superior research methods applauded by NCLB advocates. They had passed through all the rigorous blind trials.

But a few years later studies swerved into the negative, identifying side effects and risks never mentioned earlier. The benefits became tenuous. The risks elevated. So much for science!

The same with breast cancer.

The same with caffeine.

The same with red wine.

The same with swimming right after eating.

The same with salt consumption.

The list goes on and on. Medical certainties and pronouncements followed by reversals. Is it Truth? Or is it Virtual truth?

Let us save our children from such virtual truths and uncertainties.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.

What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.