Some favorite moments in this week’s Sunday Times

First, from Anthony Gottlieb’s review of Steven Pinker’s new book (Rationality: What It is, Why It Seems Scarce and Why It Matters):

Like John Locke before him, Pinker wants more lessons in schools about reasoning and critical thinking. There is some evidence that such lessons work. But what part of the curriculum should be scaled back to make room for them? According to one analysis of Department of Education data, fewer than half of American adults are proficient at reading. And according to one Department of Health study, a third of adults have difficulty interpreting simple health information, such as the instructions on a drug label. Maybe it is wise to learn to walk before you learn to run.

Yup, if you aren’t a proficient reader, instruction in logical fallacies and statistical reasoning will only go so far.

Perhaps Pinker should have started with the rationality of the prevailing reading curricula and what kinds of logical and statistical errors led to their adoption by so many US school districts.

On a lighter note, I just loved this headline: “Trailblazing Female Spanish Author? No, 3 Men.”

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Reading an economics op ed in writing class

One frustration I have, teaching freshman composition, has to do with the essays that appear in readers.

Almost universally, they are about one subject and one subject alone: identity. That’s it. Hispanic identity, Asian identity, black identity, female identity, gay identity, disability identity, on and on.

And everything is personal. First person, no research, no footnotes.

Which would be fine if my students were going to be writing 1st-person, no-research papers in the future. But they’re not.

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Missed opportunities to make up for missed opportunities

On a recent morning, 10 fourth-graders huddled in a circle on the floor over magnetic boards, moving lettered tiles to spell out the one-syllable words their teacher, Katerah Layne, called out.

“Rub” said Ms. Layne. As the students shuffled their tiles, a couple confused the letters “b” and “d.”

“It’s OK to get confused,” Ms. Layne reassured the students.

Next, she called out the word “fish.” All of the students spelled it correctly. “We all got the ‘i’ sound. I’m so proud of you,” said Ms. Layne.

From a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Due in part to pandemic-related disruptions, half of Ms. Layne’s 25 students tested at kindergarten to first-grade reading levels. They’re in 4th grade.

But it’s hard to see how the pandemic by itself could have wreaked this much havoc on reading skills. As the article notes:

The district has faced a growing literacy problem over the past 15 years. But the pandemic has turned it into a crisis: A test administered this month to gauge how many students met state grade-level standards revealed that of the 422 second- through fourth-graders at Sevilla East, 58% were determined to be minimally proficient in their grade-level standards for English Language Arts—the lowest rank.

One clue about what else might be going on can be found in the above lesson–which is part of a concerted effort to remediate the students’ reading deficits. “Rub” followed immediately by “fish”? This does not smell like systematic phonics: the kind that has the best track record of getting struggling students up to speed. The students need “rub”, “cub”, “dub”, “sub”, and “tub”, presented in sequence. Those who are confusing “b” and “d” also need “dub” and “bud”; “dab” and “bad”; and “bid” and “dib”. Someone needs to drill them until they all achieve accuracy and fluency.

On top of all this, however, the pandemic clearly did wreak some lasting havoc. And it wasn’t just in terms of the problems, well known to us all, of computer connectivity, Zoom limitations, and student engagement. The distance learning also, apparently, fostered alarming new habits. Shortly after Ms. Layne asked the children to do some writing

she heard a synchrony of chimes go off around the room.

“What are you guys doing?” asked Ms. Layne, looking around the room confused.

The students responded: “We’re writing our answer.” The students had turned on microphones to speak into their iPads, which then typed out the text for them—something they routinely did during remote learning last year.

One student explained that this was easier because he didn’t know how to spell some words, and because he wasn’t good at writing capital Ds. Nor is he alone in his writing difficulties:

Ms. Layne said that at the beginning of the year many of her fourth-grade students were writing their numbers backward. Now, just two students do. When she asked the children to spell out the one-syllable words she noticed many inserted random vowels.

After weeks of daily repetition with the same 30 or so words, there are fewer guesses. They can distinguish the words “black” and “back,” and “away” and “always.” But a couple still say “at-ee” when they see the flashcard that says “ate.”

“ate”, “date”, “mate”, “rate”, “late”…. As in, it’s never too late for systematic phonics. Even–or, rather, especially–for struggling 4th graders like these.

AI meets anti-racism

Following a trend seen also in the Boston and New York public schools, magnet schools in Philadelphia, as reported in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, will

mov[e] away from a system where principals have influence to one that relies on a centralized lottery and, at some schools, favors students from historically under-represented zip codes.

As Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, explains

“As a district, we have made a commitment to being an anti-racist organization… we recognize that there will be people who are uncomfortable, but we’re leaning into that discomfort, and we’re going to do what we need to do to do right by our schools.”

But here’s the part I don’t understand:

Some schools will ask students for a writing sample that will be scored by computer.

Scored by a computer? What problems are we solving by letting computers score essays?

Perhaps we should also let computers take over the K-8 math and language arts instruction that determines whether students can handle the demands of magnet high schools.

Unless that’s happening already…

Possibly the single biggest obstacle to conducting research

An entity to which all researchers are accountable and which is accountable to no one.

A juggernaut that accrues ever more power from our ever increasing safety-ism plus fear of lawsuits, and yet whose dictates are increasingly out of line with our shared common sense.

Some people have taken note:

From the summary:

[Schneider] concludes that IRBs were fundamentally misconceived. Their usefulness to human subjects is doubtful, but they clearly delay, distort, and deter research that can save people’s lives, soothe their suffering, and enhance their welfare. IRBs demonstrably make decisions poorly. They cannot be expected to make decisions well, for they lack the expertise, ethical principles, legal rules, effective procedures, and accountability essential to good regulation. And IRBs are censors in the place censorship is most damaging—universities.

I would add that IRBs are especially misconceived when it comes to selectively “protecting” human subjects from educational interventions.

Not that educational interventions aren’t ever harmful: schools can and do inflict all kinds of educational harm on the nation’s school children, and on a routine basis–from Balanced Literacy to Everyday Math.

But it’s only when outsiders try to research alternative educational interventions that IRBs wield power, throwing up ever more forbidding obstacles in the paths of those of us who wish to discover more effective alternatives to educational methods that have been failing our school kids for decades.