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!

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.

A round-up of alarming articles about U.S. math education

I’ve been meaning to write a post on these four articles, recently shared by Ling Huang on a math education email list I’m part of.

In his very powerful piece The Two-Front War on Academic Standards, Maxwell Meyer opens with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” (a story I last read about a century before its setting):

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Our version of the 21st century is more (or is it less?) black and white. In There Is No Such Thing as “White” Math, Princeton Professor Sergiu Klainerman writes:

The idea that focusing on getting the “right answer” is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous. The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

Few people want to address the real problem, even though it is staring us in the face. As Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerman write regarding racial equity in mathematics in America Is Flunking Math:

This lack of representation is real and very serious, but the report, while raising awareness of several ugly facts from the long-ago past, makes little effort to address the real reasons for this, mainly the catastrophic failure of the K-12 mathematical educational system.

(Bold-face mine).

A second article by Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman, As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader, has me wondering about the Darwinian struggle between political systems:

Chinese universities are now actively attracting senior Chinese, US, and European scientists to their faculty. (And unlike their American institutional counterparts, they recruit on the merit principle, unhampered by ideologically dictated diversity mandates.) In some cases, we are seeing prominent mathematicians at good or even top US schools moving to Peking and Tsinghua Universities after long and successful US careers. Many of these scholars are Chinese, but some are not.

Will merit-based autocracies ultimately win out over equity obsessed democracies?

Of course, true equity is pretty much the opposite of what’s long been going on throughout U.S. K-12.

The Reason I Jump: self promotion trumps intellectual honesty, Part II

Novelist David Mitchell feels he’s figured out autism. It is not a socio-cognitive disorder, but a communication disorder. This communication disorder, he says, “locks you in, it makes it very very hard to express yourself in any way.”

What has inspired Mitchell’s revelation about autism is a single book of questionable authenticity: Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump. Originally written in Japanese, purportedly by a non-speaking autistic boy using a letterboard, the book was later translated into English by Mitchell and his wife. Most recently, it has morphed into the movie The Reason I Jump which features five other individuals with autism, two of whom use letterboards. See here and here for discussion.

Continue reading

Why do some autism experts fall for Facilitated Communication?

Watching autism neurologist Margaret Bauman being taken in by Sue Rubin’s facilitated communication in Autism is a World got me thinking about other neurologists who have suffered similar fates. One in particular has long stood out to me: Mike Merzernich. After studying Tito, son of Soma, founder of the Rapid Prompting Method variant of FC, Merzenich has concluded that “Tito is for real,” and “I think there could be thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Titos out there.”

How can people who should know better about the neurology of autism have been so deluded? Doesn’t their own brain research conflict with the underlying assumptions of FC—namely, the assumption that autism is primarily a movement disorder?

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Clever Stella (the Dog of Ms. Hunger)

Since its release early this month, How Stella Learned to Talk has already garnered more 5-star reviews than another book released last month by the same publisher (William Morrow). That other book would be the pro-FC I Have Been Buried Under Years of Dust. Just a few weeks out, Stella has already broken 1000 in its Amazon sales rankings, a milestone that Dust hasn’t come close to.

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Diagnostic Grammar Test

SentenceWeaver’s Diagnostic Grammar Test is ready for beta-testing. The text-input version is here:

And the speech-input version, which runs only in Chrome and requires you to enable your microphone, is here:

The point of the test is to detect difficulties in those areas of grammar that come naturally to most native English speakers but can pose challenges to individuals with autism and to non-native English speakers.

Still, it’s possible for native speakers to take this test and make mistakes: as you’ll see if you try it out, all it takes is a lapse in concentration!

Unlike SentenceWeaver’s teaching tool, the diagnostic tool doesn’t give you corrective feedback. However, since it needs to elicit particular words, phrases, or structures in order to assess particular grammar and syntax skills, it will sometimes ask you to reword your answer.

You’re welcome to try it out on yourself on your kids, and you can sign in using whatever name you’d like. Feedback appreciated!


I just found out that a copy editor removed a colon from a key sentence in the critique I just published of Jaswal et al’s pro-FC eye-tracking study. The resulting sentence is incoherent:

Indeed, it would be quite strange if there were the ability to answer open-ended questions, or, more generally, to participate in a communicative exchange, is independent of linguistic medium (speaking, writing, typing), and is limited only by one’s ability to function in that medium (to pronounce words, to write letters and spell words, to type and spell words) and by one’s general communicative competence.

I’ll leave it as an exercise to the interested reader to figure out where the colon goes.

Hint: here is the immediately preceding sentence:

There is, in fact, no empirically established or diagnostically categorized language disorder that combines extant oral skills with conversation skills that only emerge during hunt-and-peck typing.

Word to the wise: when reviewing proofs, make sure to look for tiny strike-through marks through punctuation marks whose occasionally crucial function your copy editor may have somehow overlooked.