Special Ed Programs in PWCS to get More Funds

As reported in Inside NOVA, the PWC School Board has allocated an additional $2.5 million to special ed programs in the district, in order to remain in compliance with federal special ed regulations.  While we applaud PWCS for allocating the additional funds, like school board candidate Alyson Satterwhite, we  have to ask what services those funds will be used to provide.

PWCS has a reputation for poorly addressing the needs of special ed students.  Certainly there is room for improvement, but throwing more money won’t solve the problems within our special ed department unless those funds are allocated appropriately.

As such, we are calling on Superintendent Walts and the members of the PWC School Board to explain how those additional $2.5 million will be allocated and what improvements they are expected to provide.

Is Discovery Learning a Bust?

Is Discovery Learning a Bust, and

Has PWC Blown it By Embracing Discovery Learning?

Several years ago Prince William County Schools (PWCS) adopted a mathematics program called Investigations in Number, Data, and Space as it’s elementary math program.  PWCS is currently pushing Connected Mathematics into the Middle Schools.  Both of these programs are based on an instructional philosophy which concludes that students’ learn best when they discover knowledge on their own – a philosophy which is commonly referred to as discovery, or constructivist, learning.

The current trend in extending the tenets of discovery learning to mathematics can be traced back, to an extent,  works published in the 60’s.   Researchers noted that children learn things easily outside of school when they discover it themselves, while learning in a school environment takes a lot of effort and work.   They theorized that if schools duplicated the “outside of school” environment, students would learn more in less time with better retention and greater depth of understanding.

Whole Language was one of the offshoots of this approach to learning.  After years of suffering the reading wars, Congress commissioned studies to determine how children learn to read.  The results of those studies brought about the more balanced reading instruction we see today where phonics is one of the pillars on which a sound reading program rests.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the Math Wars, with PWC on the front lines.  Several Years ago the National Institutes of Child Health convened  studies to ascertain how children learn math and what contributes to math learning disabilities.  One such study is currently in it’s 6th year and has reported some of it’s conclusions. Dr Dave Geary recently published an article, based on those studies, (see here) in which he concluded that some things, like talking and walking, are inherent biological functions which humans are genetically designed to develop, while other functions, like reading and math, aren’t inherent and are needed only because society demands them.

Geary’s research indicates that these non-inherent functions (which he refers to as biologically secondary knowledge) aren’t learned the same way that inherent functions are learned; that discovery and self learning, the primary means by which children learn to talk and walk aren’t the most effective means of teaching children to read or write or understand and perform mathematical calculations.

Geary’s study concludes that math and science instructional programs need to include direct instruction and practice if we want our children to learn math and science.

Yet in the fall PWCS will be officially extending it’s discovery based math program to 5th grade and officials in PWCS are working diligently to unofficially implement it’s discovery based math program, Connected Math, in the middle schools.  You have to wonder why the county would continue these programs, when the evidence suggests that these programs, while engaging to our children, don’t actually teach them math.

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With thanks to Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD and Dan Dempsey of The Math Underground for bringing this research to my attention.

Children Learn by Practicing

Children Learn by Practicing

That comes as no surprise to most parents.  But trends in education in the last 15 years, especially in math, demonstrate that this statement is nothing short of astonishing.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Over thousands of years, humans have evolved to naturally understand things like facial expressions and social interactions. But a University of Missouri researcher has found there is an ever-widening gap between what humans can naturally learn and what they need to learn to be successful adults in today’s modern society. Schools have traditionally helped bridge the gap between evolution and new knowledge, but in the U.S. more may need to be done.

“Schools need to push children to learn things that they do not do naturally, which is more important as our knowledge of the world continues to expand,” said David Geary, Curators’ Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. “Learning is not always going to be fun and children should not expect it to be. Attempting to engage children by making activities fun, causes those activities to become more similar to what students are already doing naturally and can limit new learning.”

Geary found that one reason U.S. students may be behind students in other countries in subjects like science and math is because American schools have moved away from traditional practices where students learn information through repetition. Instead, U.S. schools often use more group and social interactions to teach topics that can be challenging.

Dr Geary in part of a 10 year program of study on Mathematics and Science Cognition and Learning, Development, and Disorders through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  According to his biography, The objectives of this program are to explore the critical genetic, neurobioligical, cognitive, linguistic, socio- cultural, and instructional factors that influence normal and atypical development in math and science.”  The study is in it’s sixth year identifying the mechanisms that contribute to mathematical learning through algebra and the mechanisms that underlie learning disabilities in mathematics.  

I guess drill and kill wasn’t so bad, after all …..

You can read the full article here (H/T to NYHOLD).

Will PWC Have To Pay Up For Bad Math?

A couple of interesting events have occurred in the past week which should have PWC officials working over time. The first is the US Dept of Education’s Practice Guide on Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics and the second is the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Forest Grove case.

Let’s start with some background.

In 2004 Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Included in the act was something called Response to Intervention (RTI) for math and reading. RTI is a tiered system of instruction whose intent is to ensure that all students receive a high-quality instructional program and that students who are slipping behind are identified and provided additional, appropriate instruction to ensure that they don’t slip further behind. A child does not need to have an identified disability or special need to qualify for remediation – he / she simply needs to be struggling to keep up with his / her peers. RTI has been applied to reading for some time, with some success.

The practice guide provides advice to school districts in applying the RTI principles to math. The Guide provides eight steps schools districts should follow to ensure early and adequate intervention should a student slip behind in math (you can find those steps in Table 2 of the report linked above). Those steps conclude that explicit instruction and drills are the standard course of action for remediation.

Remember, Investigations doesn’t do explicit instruction and drills.

So what does that Supreme Court case mean to all of this? According to Justice Stephens “IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of special education services when a school district fails to provide a free and appropriate public education and the private school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school.”

In the Forest Grove Case, parents of a child with ADHD pulled their child from the Forest Grove school system before he’d received remediation, and placed him in private school. They then sued the school district for the cost of private school under IDEA and won.

Enter PWC and the Investigations battle. Many parents have argued that Investigations remedial pace leaves their children behind their peers in other districts. That insufficient practice, inadequate direct instruction, and de-emphasis of fluency with basic math facts provides their children with an inadequate foundation in mathematics. Many parents have noted that their children are struggling with basic mathematics concepts like subtraction and division, and fractions are beyond their comprehension.

Under the RTI these students should be receiving remediation with direct instruction and drill on basic math facts and standard operations. But Investigations doesn’t do direct instruction or drill on basic math facts and standard operations. So what is the county going to do to intervene with these students, if the program they’ve chosen doesn’t do what the RTI recommends? Remember, your child doesn’t have to have special needs or a disability to receive remediation.

What does this mean for parents who have already given up on PWC schools and are teaching their children math at home? Those of us who have hired private tutors or purchased alternate instructional materials? Can we demand that the county reimburse us for the cost of tutors and alternate materials?

Alternate materials are readily available to the schools which provide for direct instruction and drill on basic math facts and standard operations. Those materials include programs like Saxon, Singapore, Sadlier Oxford, and others.

Does PWC have those materials available so that they can provide remediation to students who are struggling?

What about for students who are bored by Investigations because it moves too slowly. Does PWC have those materials available so that they can provide remediation to students who are ready to move ahead?

And if PWC does not have those materials available and does not provide the remediation these students need, is the county prepared to reimburse those parents for the cost of private school, private tutors, or home instruction?

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