A critique of modern public school reform

I watched an interview with Diane Ravitch on her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, on C-SPAN’s “Book TV.” She was originally a supporter of No Child Left Behind and charter schools. She has since changed her mind, based on the evidence. I wasn’t particularly inspired by this interview, but I thought what she had to say was insightful.

My own view of school reform has changed over time. I was under the impression that past efforts had failed, but that NCLB and charter schools would be different, more successful. With some caveats it looks like I was wrong.

The one positive aspect I’ve heard about NCLB from educators is that for the first time people can see how well or badly different ethnic groups are doing in the public school system, and the contrasts are stark. Other than that, I have heard very little that’s good about it. Ravitch says that charter schools on average do about as well as the public schools. This assertion is echoed by comments (below) from Lt. Governor of Colorado Barbara O’Brien, who’s former post was Education Secretary for Colorado. What’s important is her explanation as to why this is so.

No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill was signed into law in 2002. At the time I was rather enthusiastic about it. I had my own conception of how it would work. I assumed it would bring something resembling “market discipline” to public schools. My idea for it was that schools would try various approaches for teaching subjects, and the tests would provide feedback and pressure to improve their teaching methods, given they have autonomy to figure that out. I figured that those who were “teaching to the test” were school environments which had previously been below standard. So “teaching to the test” would be an improvement. I assumed that the best schools would have no problems. The idea I’m getting lately is what happened was very different from what I expected.

I was particularly motivated to support the idea by a small documentary I saw on PBS showing how some schools were utterly failing kids with learning disabilities. It profiled a special Ed. teacher who fielded a bunch of young kids from different schools. Each was not able to read at grade level. It seemed like he had his own private teaching environment. He had found various ways of helping them compensate so that they could learn. His techniques were not being used in the schools where these kids came from. Rather than deal with them, the schools just shoved them aside, because they didn’t understand the students’ disabilities. The documentary showed the consequences of this failure. Some learning disabled students fell through the cracks into young adulthood. They had dropped out of school and were struggling. Statistically, many of them turned to crime. The most heartbreaking thing it revealed is that state governments literally plan future prison expansion years in advance based on current dropout statistics. The pattern had been there for years. States are just dealing with the reality and coping with it. The image it portrayed was clear: Those of you who make it and manage to become functional citizens have a chance. For those who don’t, we’re building a dreary prison cell for you. It’s ready and waiting. Granted, not all dropouts end up in prison, but according to the doc., significant numbers of them do. I definitely got a sense that this was an alarming situation and it needed to be addressed pronto. It was a crying shame this was happening.

I saw a PBS special a couple years ago on “how it’s been going so far” with NCLB. It seemed to be a balanced presentation of the reform, showing positive and negative aspects of it. What stood out to me is it showed that NCLB was having a negative impact even on the best schools in the country, and it got into some of the details on why. They profiled one such school. They interviewed a former science teacher there who basically said that the standardized science test misconstrues science, treating it as a static body of facts, when in fact scientific knowledge is constantly evolving as new discoveries are made. Sometimes old, well-established models are brought into doubt by new evidence. The teacher said that if her students followed what was currently being discovered they would actually score lower on the test, because it assumes that the established knowledge is the only correct answer.

As I learned more about the scientific outlook myself, I realized that the basis for the standardized science test was largely wrong. Part of science is a body of knowledge about models that scientists have constructed in an attempt to understand what they’re studying. These are commonly called “discoveries.” I imagine a standardized test could be devised for testing knowledge about these models, except to get it right, they would need to be talked about in terms of ideas that have been tested, reviewed, and criticized to varying degrees, and which can be tested, thought about, and criticized further, rather than “facts” which are merely to be accepted. Some models are extremely reliable, as close to “facts” as science can get. The crucial thing that kids should be learning in school about science is it’s a way of thinking about what we see. It would be very difficult to test for this aspect in a standardized testing format, perhaps impossible, but it would be teaching what science really is.

Much the same could be said about how mathematics is tested (and taught). To the best of my knowledge at this point, mathematics is about testing the validity of assertions made about abstractions, and seeing patterns of relationships between abstractions, using logic. With some exceptions, this is hardly taught in secondary schools (In primary schools it’s harder to get the logic aspect across, perhaps until the later grades, due to the fact that the minds of young children are not developmentally prepared for symbolic, logical thinking. So it should probably be de-emphasized until they are older). Instead what’s typically taught in the best of environments in the current system is a lot of rules, techniques for problem solving, and pattern matching.

I heard a discussion recently where typical math and science education was called “literacy” training, and I think that pretty well sums up what the focus has been, going back to when I was in school. The problem is, as I’ve discussed previously, this doesn’t teach the whole of what math and science are. Instead it teaches aspects, just enough it’s thought to “get people going”, because the assumption is that knowing what these subjects really are should be reserved for the people who want to become mathematicians and scientists, the people who are interested and have a knack for it. What’s taught is background knowledge so that it can be applied to practical problems in the future. It’s thought that the only side benefits are that they’ll teach problem solving, and perhaps critical thinking skills. The assumption is for those purposes, that’s all that’s needed. The devotees can get into the more esoteric aspects (real math, real science) if they want. The goal is to get some of that knowledge, and some of those lessons that produce the desired side-effects into as many people as possible. In my view, the focus of NCLB, and prior standardized testing efforts, fit right in with these goals. It further reinforces the idea of teaching literacy in these subjects, not in how to think in “the way of the mathematician”, and “the way of the scientist”. From what I understand, most math and science teachers don’t get these subjects for what they truly are, either. I don’t mean to apply this criticism just to the modern era. This goes back to the beginning of public schooling in this country.

The second thing the PBS special showed (getting back to that) was how the testing rules did not take into account the issues that the school had to deal with. It cited cases where foreign students were admitted who didn’t speak English. They are required to do this by law. One case was of a foreign student who was required to take the standardized test two days after being admitted. Obviously the student did poorly, because he/she couldn’t read it (though the student was not illiterate in his/her native language). This lowered the school’s overall proficiency score. They had gotten several of these cases. This got the government’s attention. As a result (as per the rules) they came in and started firing administrators and staff. These were the accountability measures put into action.

One teacher who used to be with this school, and who had won the Teacher of the Year award, was heartbroken, because he felt he had to quit teaching. He couldn’t stand what the rules were doing to the school environment. The science teacher who was interviewed also left teaching, and instead stayed with the school in a support role. This got across the idea that rather than improving education, NCLB is watering it down.

As I thought about what NCLB might be doing, just on the academic level, I got the idea that maybe it’s forcing the schools toward a median, bringing poor bad schools up, and dragging good schools down. I’ve heard a few educators talk about it in these terms. This is not what I thought would be happening.

Charter schools

Another reform I thought had promise was the movement for charter schools. The idea was these were fairly close to public schools, but they were allowed more autonomy. They had more degrees of freedom so they could experiment.

Well, in August 2007 I got a bit of a reality check when I listened to Barbara O’Brien, Colorado’s Lt. Governor, in a radio interview on “Caplis & Silverman” at KHOW 630 AM. When asked why Colorado’s schools were not performing as well as expected, she said,

We were complacent. I think we just assumed everything was great, but the world is passing us by, and we’re now competing against countries that are really working hard on science and technology, and literacy. I mean, they have higher literacy rates in a lot of Third World countries than we do in the U.S.

On charter schools she said,

I have been a long-time charter supporter, as you know, and in fact helped write the legislation … I had higher hopes than it’s turned out. So I’m less committed to thinking that will solve our problems, and I’ll tell you why. Basically we’ve lost the knowledge of how to educate kids in tough subjects, you know, science, math, technology-based curriculum. We don’t teach hard literature. You know, we teach easier to read books these days. And so just because kids go to different schools, frankly, from the charter school experience, we’re not seeing that that makes much difference in test scores.

O’Brien went on to say that the intent of the charter school program in Colorado was that they would act as laboratories, and successful strategies would be brought over to public schools. There had been some successes. Efforts have been made to bring those strategies into the public school system, and results have improved.

She said, though, that most of the charter schools are really bad, and contrary to expectations it’s been nearly impossible to shut them down. The reason is charters are governed by local school boards, and like public schools they had succumbed to school system politics. O’Brien said,

We have created an education system, I think, that is easy on adults, and in doing that we’ve lost sight of what it means to run a system that’s really based on what the kids need to perform at a really high level. And where they go to school isn’t going to matter as much as figuring out what the right standards [need to be] to compete with China.

So, what to do? Reform after reform after reform doesn’t seem to do much of anything to improve the lot of public school students. The impression I’ve been getting after doing some research on this is that since the 1990s corporate/economic management outlooks have been imposed on the educational system in an effort to make it more efficient and effective, or in some cases serve certain corporate interests, and this turns out to be a big part of the problem. Basically school reform has been driven by people who either don’t understand education in a holistic way, or don’t understand it at all.

Ravitch goes into some detail on how NCLB and charter schools came about. She broadly answers the question, “What needs to be done?” Her answers are sobering. She says that fixing bad schools in the public system is not an easy problem. It can take many years to see improvement after sustained reform efforts are instituted, if one goes about it realistically. She said one of the things that’s damaged NCLB as a reform effort are the accountability measures: forcing staff to be fired after a few years of bad results. That just means you have to start all over again when you bring new staff in. Reformers live under the illusion (perhaps “delusion” would be a more appropriate term) that there are good, well-tested education models that will convey the important aspects of the subjects that schools want to teach in reliable ways to students. She says in reality no such models exist. Education is more of an art at this point than a science. There are a lot of factors that go into a successful school, and to just look at teaching methods as the answer is a vast oversimplification of the solution.

She said the pressure to conform to standard teaching methods is destroying real education, because you can’t treat teachers like robots. They need to understand the changes they’re expected to make from an educational perspective. I’ve been saying for a while that what would be preferable is if the teacher is interested in learning themselves, so they can teach what learning is about through their own pedagogy to their students, in addition to different ways of thinking.

Another big idea she wanted to get across is that “we need to develop a real curriculum, which we don’t really have right now.” I’m not sure what she means by that. She didn’t explain it. People think of teaching things like English, math, science, history, art, etc. as a curriculum. One aspect she might be referring to is something I’ve heard about in a nearby school district, and which has been standard in Montessori education for decades, which is creating a program that coordinates the teaching of related subjects at different grade levels. This is so that when a student advances, the school has tried to make sure that the student has developed the competencies they need to go on to the next subject without having to make up for a gap between the two, created either by the education program of the school district itself, or teachers who are not acting in concert with each other. What’s surprising to me is most schools, public, or perhaps even private, don’t think of this.

She said improvement involves a number of factors, including things that affect the students, like getting adequate sleep, getting good nutrition, motivation to learn, etc. Assuming that you can improve schools just by looking at the teachers and how their students score on standardized tests is too simplistic. I’ve been guilty of that POV. A non-obvious answer she gave is that the root of poor bad learning environments is poverty, and that a major part of the answer to improving education is addressing poverty. Maybe she was talking more about city support services. To me, she was talking about an issue that the school system has no control over. It has more to do with the local economy and the opportunities it makes possible. Maybe my view of poverty is too simplistic, but I’ve heard of many instances where the financial wealth of a family was not the controlling factor in whether the children were well educated. It was more a factor of whether the family valued education. Though I can see where if the whole family is focused on just surviving, learning school subjects goes out the window.

I don’t have any clear cut answers on how to make education better. I leave that to people who have looked into this more than I have. Apparently Ravitch’s book has become unusually popular in its genre. It sounds like it might be worth a look.

Edit 9-19-2010: Robert J. Samuelson wrote an article on “School Reform’s Meager Results”, and he said something I thought would be of interest:

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards.

14 thoughts on “A critique of modern public school reform

  1. No government reform can produce effective results without a change in mindset at home. Period. Too many studies show that the home front is 50% of the battle here. Any parent who puts the onus of education on the school district is setting their kids up to fail. Any parent who backs their kid 100% whenever their kid is angry with the teacher or the school or whatever is helping their kid to fail. Any parent who demands less than 100% effort and A’s across the board… or who demands that a teacher justify a grade less than an A instead of demanding that their kid find out what needs to change to get the better grade, is setting their kid up to fail.

    I see students who demand extra credit, grading on a curve, partial credit, etc. When my son is old enough for school, I’m going to ask that I be notified if he tries this, and if he does, I’ll punish him myself. It’s a sign of a lack of learning to need these kinds of grade boosting devices. Either you know if or you don’t. If the “extra credit” is what was required, it *would be required* and not “extra credit”. If I find out that a teacher is grading on a curve, I will request a class change. Period.

    When I was in college, I *despised* curved grading. I would much rather get a C and watch most of the class fail if I am the best than to get an A and they get a C. I would much rather fail, know that I am inadequete and know that I need to make improvements than to be told that my work is good enough, when it isn’t.

    The attitude of “good enough” is destroying our education system, and it is aided and abetted by the quest to meet metrics and not prouce results. The real test is in “the real world”. The real world doesn’t care one whit what metric you met because metrics are not results (unless you are a salesperson, in which case you can get a bonus even if the sale created a net loss). We have replaced “know-how” with “know-what” (learning ways of thinking vs. learning facts and data), and our attitude is changing from “can-do” to “swagger” (knowing you can and trying your best vs. talking the talk but not walking the walk).

    It’s really sad. As the BRICK counties (and other countries) get more confidence in their in-house talent, you will see a very powerful change in the balance of economic power in the upcoming decades.


  2. @Justin:

    Re: Parental influence

    I agree. It was after thinking about and listening to others talk on the issue of improving education that I came to the conclusion that parental decision making is a significant part of the issue.

    One of my co-workers years ago was the husband of a teacher in the Denver Public School system. He told me that parents viewed the school as a babysitting service, not as a school. It disgusted him. He said when kids would be suspended from school the first response of the parents was to come in to the principal and say, “Okay. How do I get my kid back into the school?”, not, “What did my kid do wrong, and how can we work together to correct it?” They just wanted to get their kid off of their hands, because both parents were working and they didn’t want to take time off from work to be with their child, watch them like a hawk, give them a good talking to about what they did wrong, and stay on them to correct their behavior, perhaps seeking help if they do not feel they have the skills to pull this off.

    Hearing this surprised me. When I was a teen, every parent I knew would’ve considered suspension from school a big deal.

    I’ve sometimes referred back to this post I wrote a few years ago, where some high powered people got together to talk about various topics. One of them was education. I alluded to this quote by Stephen Friedman, who was Chairman of Stone Point Capital, in my post here:

    There’s no question that when you have active, aggressive parents who demand the services, and “Scarsdales” is certainly an epitome of that, you’re going to get different results. I don’t think that you have to be the head of a Fortune 100 company to understand that your kids’ futures depend on education. I think most of the people in this audience probably came from families where education was an important part of life, even if it was a Depression era and there was no money around. I think the real question is why are the average parents in America willing to live with a school–You know, when they do the studies they find that people tend to be satisfied with their own school system. They’re underdemanding consumers. Why are they satisfied with a system that has their kids’ comparative standings on the standardized tests so poor against the rest of the world? I don’t understand it. I don’t understand. There’s a market failure, but I don’t think that only rich people can drive very successful school systems.

    I watched “Two Million Minutes” last year. At the very end it said something like 65-70% of parents were satisfied with their own public schools. It kind of explained why, saying that our society values well roundedness of the human being, social skills, physical fitness, competitiveness, self-confidence, exposure to a variety of experiences, over academics. Not that academics are not important, but they’re not the main goal. I’ve even heard prominent people say, George Lucas is one example, in years past that “emotional intelligence” is much more important than technical intelligence. They’ve promoted the idea that what we really need are leaders who can inspire people. That’s a rare thing, they say. Whereas in India and China, academics are heavily emphasized. Students there like art and sports, and they get into that some, but the emphasis is on the hard work of learning academic subjects.

    Watching some of the videos on YouTube that are related to this doc. are helpful in understanding it. I recognized myself in some of the criticism. Robert Compton, who made the film, said that Americans tend to shoot for schools they know they can get into fairly easily, whereas parents and students in India and China tend to have a strategy of picking a “safe school”, getting accepted there, but then “bidding up”, applying to a more prestigious school, perhaps in their own country. If they get refused there, they go to their “safe school” pick, but the point is they shoot higher in hopes that they can get something better.

    His description fit me to a tee. I chose a “safe school” when I applied to colleges, and I didn’t even try to get into a more rigorous program, because I thought I wouldn’t qualify due to my grades being below their “automatic admittance” standards. The other thing is I didn’t get a lot of help in directing my college search towards what were the best schools for what I wanted to study. I knew about MIT, which wouldn’t have been a bad pick, but I didn’t know of any of the other good schools for CS. Getting that knowledge would’ve been difficult without being able to hear from and mingle with the top people in the field. The internet makes this kind of research much more possible now.

    Re: grading curves

    When I was in public school stuff got graded on a curve quite a bit, though it was always very slight. They might’ve changed my grade on a test by a tenth of a point or so, nothing dramatic. It happened so often I came to expect it. Even when I got into college this happened. Again, usually very slight grade adjustments. It was rare if curves shifted grades more than a point. The most dramatic case of this that I saw was in one of my CS classes (I may write about this someday) where the teacher was terrible, and I overheard someone say that half the class was failing. I saw some *massive* curves in that class. It was shocking to me. The CS department may have gotten on this teacher about it, because I remember very early on our professors telling us that if we turned in programs that didn’t work, the best grade we could expect out of them was a D. If anything, the curving tended to happen on written tests.

    It might’ve depended on the college as well. I had a roommate who was an engineering major, and he told me that he had seen classes where half the students failed. They either had to repeat the class or change their major.

    Last I heard, grading on a curve is even taking place at Harvard. So it may be hard to avoid. I recall hearing about a humanities professor at Harvard who told his classes at the beginning of each semester, “When you receive your work back from me you will get two grades: One will be the official grade, because not hurting your self-esteem is in vogue right now. It’s what’s demanded of me by our faculty. You will also get a grade that I think you deserve. This is your *real* grade.” To me it’s a shame that teachers are being forced essentially to lie.

    On a somewhat separate subject, grades don’t mean what the educational system and many parents think they mean. In effect they don’t show what you’ve learned of the subject. They show how well you did relative to your group, curve or no curve. I reflected on this recently. If one school teaches history by having their students read original sources and asks them to write what they think in essays, and another school has their students read history out of a textbook and tests them with fill-in-the-bubble tests, they can look equivalent, because both schools give out grades A-F, but this is too little information. Out in society people are more skeptical of this scheme. Employers interview candidates and get a feel for their capability and fitness for the job based on the interview, not on their grades in school (though I used to hear that one’s GPA was considered in lieu of experience for one’s very first job out of college). A rank of suma cum laude from an Ivy League school is not regarded the same as the rank suma cum laude from some state college. So despite the efforts of schools to “shape shift” the performance of their students, I don’t think it carries a lot of credibility out in the public sphere. And of course you know about CS grads who can’t program worth a darn.

    Re: The real world doesn’t care what metric you met

    Maybe you learned the same lesson I did. I remember after having been out in the work world for a few years having a conversation with a former schoolmate about this profound realization I had, “When you’re in the work world, *everyone* expects ‘A’ work from you. ‘B’ or ‘C’ work is not good enough. They won’t accept it.” Not that I tried to pawn off “B or C work” onto clients. It’s just that through the process of doing work for real people it became obvious, even before I turned in a work product, that stuff *had* to work *completely*. There really was very little room for error. Even the tiniest errors could have huge consequences, depending on the context. Having experience in the work world also taught me more skills in “learning how to learn”. I reflected on the idea that if I were to re-enter school, I’d likely get higher grades. I think when I was in school I had a one-track mind that if I felt like I didn’t understand something, I just didn’t understand it. Period. I’d certainly make an effort to understand it by “beating my head against a wall”, but if that didn’t work, I just assumed there was nothing I could do about it. With rare exceptions, I didn’t get much experience with doing research, so I didn’t get the idea that there was more than one or two sources of information that I could draw from.

    Once I got out into the work world I was motivated to say, “No, there’s got to be another way of coming to an understanding of this.” If I had to hunt for books or research online, ask total strangers for information, I’d do it. I was more motivated with the mindset “I’ve *got* to understand this, and I *will*!” not because I felt desperate for my own sake, but because I knew I would be letting people down whom I cared about, real things would fail (we’d lose clients, I would lose my job, as would others, etc.) if I failed. That’s quite different from school where if you mess up somewhat you get a lower grade, at least to me, because a grade is an abstraction.

    I remember Alan Kay promoting the idea of teaching the scientific outlook in an educational setting, specifically in the sense of gaining knowledge: to try out your ideas and see if they work, and if they work, exploring why they work, and if not, why not. If you try and do something in the real world that doesn’t work, you don’t need a grade to tell you it doesn’t work. You can see it, and there’s no denying it either.

    I remember years ago reading about a local private school that was using a multi-disciplinary approach to education, having students work on real world objects, and bringing in concepts of history, math, and science in the process. I don’t know for sure, but this might be more in line with what Kay was talking about. At one point he talked about how science introduces a new form of critical group argument, where all ideas are accepted, no matter how far out, and then there comes a stage where the ideas are criticized. The weak ideas are dropped, and the stronger ones come to the fore. He said this last stage is difficult for a lot of people, though I haven’t heard him say why. I imagine it’s because people become wedded to certain ideas–they don’t understand how to objectify the idea, separating it from themselves, and they feel hurt if their ideas are criticized or rejected. They take it personally.

    One thing I will say that’s a little different from your philosophy is that school is the time and place to make mistakes. Since you’re going to make mistakes in life, make them in school and learn from them there, not in the real world, if at all possible. I had a class in college where we got to work with a real world company on a software project. I made some big mistakes there, and in hindsight I was glad I did, because I did not repeat them when I got my own job. At one point I protested a grade I got in it. I took it up to the dean. One of my arguments was how hard I worked in the class, and he told me, “One of the worst lessons that schools teach is that you will get a good grade ‘for effort’. Effort doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is results.” Where this fits in with your philosophy of “no curves” is in order to correct your mistakes you need to get the feedback that “you made a mistake”.

  3. I used to think that school was the time and place to make mistakes. Looking back, I was wrong. I should be a LOT farther ahead in my career and in life right now, but I made too many bad mistakes around school. I should have taken the appointment to the Air Force academy, or gone to Carnegie Mellon on the scholarship that the Air Force offered me, but I didn’t. Right now, I should be halfway to having a pension in my pocket and have a good job in the military. Alternatively, I should have become a lawyer, and be collecting fat checks to file LLC papers and review contracts right now. All of those paths would have been more work up front, but better for me and my family in the long run!


  4. @Justin:

    Those aren’t the mistakes I was talking about. I was talking more about making mistakes within the school environment. I’ve come to find that the reason humans have the intelligence we have, and minds that are flexible, able to adapt to many different situations, is that while we are preprogrammed with some essential behaviors for survival, we are not preprogrammed with everything we need to know. We find things out as we go, and this makes us much more flexible learners than computers, which at this point typically need to be preprogrammed to do much of anything, but can’t go outside of the boundaries for which they were programmed. The way this flexibility was gained was by allowing for the possibility of making mistakes. The good part is we can learn from them.

    Looking back on my childhood/teen experience, I think I was too intolerant of making mistakes in school. I tended to be risk-averse. What I also lacked was the ability to excel beyond my mistakes. Like I said, if I failed to grasp a concept, or if I failed to perform well, I often just assumed I was incapable of understanding it, or understanding how I could’ve done things differently to avoid the mistake.

    I, too, have my regrets re. my educational choices, but looking back on what was possible, I don’t see how things could’ve turned out much differently. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve tried much harder to ace my math and science classes going into high school, to get a 4.0 GPA overall, to get a perfect score on the SAT, and to go to MIT or CMU to pursue CS (From my own research these were some of the top schools for CS. Again, as I sometimes say, perhaps I should’ve pursued CS as a masters, and studied something else for my undergrad degree).

    Doing what would’ve been really necessary to “get” what I needed to learn would’ve also meant ignoring the pedagogy (the way of teaching) that my math and science teachers were offering for those subjects. They weren’t giving the full sense of what those subjects are really about. I mean, I might’ve needed to go to a really good private school to get this stuff from a teacher, rather than public school, and that was really up to my mom, not me. Barring that, I would’ve needed private tutoring at home on these subjects, and just used school for supplemental knowledge. Some education in engineering outside of school would’ve also been helpful. It turns out there were some students I knew in school whose parents did this sort of thing with them. They didn’t just take what they were spoon-fed in school. You wrote a blog post not too long ago, giving advice on the question, “I’m interesting in pursuing CS. What should I do?” I gave the same advice in my comments there.

    Doing all of this would’ve required an awareness that nobody around me had–not me, not my mom, not her friends, nor my counselors in school. I had no access to the internet then, so it would’ve been extremely difficult for me to reach outside the people I knew to get good information about this. I mean, I and my mom would’ve had to have started researching this stuff at the latest when I was in Jr. high school, in the early 1980s! I don’t see how we could’ve done it, unless I had been very lucky and happened to already know someone who was a leader in the field. That was just the breaks then.

    In some way I’m trying to make up for now what I lacked then, except rather than expecting to gain all my knowledge in school, I’m trying to get it on my own terms. In terms of gutsiness I see this as the riskiest thing I’ve done in my life. It was very scary at first, but I feel inexorably driven forward by a desire to learn this stuff. I have no idea where it will lead me. I have been getting encouragement along the way, and that has given me hope that maybe I’ll end up benefiting from it.

  5. You may find the situation in Canada interesting. For various historical and political reasons there are two official languages in Canada, English and French. One of the results of he political rearrangements in Quebec within Canada during the 60s and 70s was an emphasis on having bilingual citizens. To generate these bilingual citizens in the provinces who’s majority language was and is not French (and make these people eligible for the bilingualism mandatory federal government jobs) a French Immersion system was created for the school system. This system is not mandatory and must be actively applied for by the parents.

    This system has become the elite education stream. A recent article talks about it:

    I am nowhere near as worried about this as article author, it seems to me this is an evolutionary development rooted in the simple fact that kids who’s parents are involved with their kids education normally do better in school, and this attitude has class correlations. And since your job prospects in Canada *are* better if you are bilingual, then those parents will want their kids to be bilingual. Iterate this over a few generations and you have the current situation.

    Last time I was back home I asked my sister about the FI system and it’s use as a streaming mechanism for her kids and she pretty much agreed. Which astonished me as I normally associate her with being much more egalitarian and politically unaware. This encourages me as I see Canada as being 10 to 20 years behind the US in the decline of the public school system and this could arrest part of the decline.

  6. @John Dougan:

    That is interesting. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me since in Europe it’s common for people to know more than their native tongue. It’s considered part of being educated.

    I support the idea of exclusivity in secondary and post-secondary education by ability. We as a society need that in order to produce highly competent people not only for industry, but for government. One of the things I’ve complained about is the idea of “universal access” to all levels of education. It seems like a nice, good-hearted idea, but what it ends up doing is watering down academics to a median for everybody, even the students who are more capable. So everybody is deprived of a top quality education. If you’re concerned about Canada I would watch out for that up there. The way it’s been sold here is, “People who don’t have a college degree are going to be left in the dust. They will be condemned to poverty and their work prospects will be slim. We need a highly educated workforce, and so everyone needs a college degree.” This mistakes the idea that people are admitted to an institution for “education”. It neglects the fact that in order for a high quality education to exist, the students must be prepared for it. If they have not acquired certain foundational concepts it’s useless to try to teach them more advanced concepts, and so schools are forced to either water down what they teach so more students will “get something”, or flunk out many of their students.

    I don’t know if you were responding to something I said in my post. I didn’t mean to imply it’s a problem that foreign students are coming into our school system, or that English immersion is bad. Quite the contrary, I support English immersion. I support the idea of students who know English learning foreign languages as well.

    You are probably aware of this, but from what I’ve heard the most common “solution” we’ve used with foreign students is what we call “bilingual education”, which tends to mean that foreign students are taught subjects in their native language, with some exposure to English. From what I understand this approach does not succeed in teaching English proficiency. As my high school French teacher told us when I was in high school, if you really want to learn French, spend a lot of time in France. You will learn the language quickly because you have to! That’s a great motivator.

    The point I was making about foreign, non-English-speaking students entering our schools is that it lowered the government’s official score for the school. In the example cited the standardized test was only given in English. In the case cited the student did not know English, and yet was expected to take the standardized test two days after being admitted to the school. Since the student scored low, that counted against the school! So even though they’re required by law to admit all comers, they were in effect being penalized for admitting non-English speakers. It’s an unintended consequence of NCLB.

    To me, a better accommodation would be to either offer the standardized test in the student’s native language (this could be done with the assistance of a translator, though I imagine this would still cause some problems with accurate scoring as it would make test taking slower), or make it possible to obtain a waiver for such students so that they don’t have to take the standardized test right away, giving them time to gain some English proficiency.

    I say this with some trepidation, because I’m souring on the idea that our emphasis on standardized testing is really giving students a high quality education. We seem to instead be turning out students who just want to know “what’s going to be on the test” rather than developing their thinking skills. That to me is scary. We cannot have a functional society if people’s goals are geared toward “what’s the correct answer?”, because who’s going to come up with the answer to an unknown? I suspect that in society such people will be led by demagogues and charlatans who will presume to give them the “correct” answer. In industry we’ll just hire foreigners who are educated to think, and who will supply “correct answers” for our workers to consume.

  7. I think that NCLB has more side effects than intended effects. I sympathize with the goals but modern mainstream educational theory is so awful that it’s near impossible to actually get real results. Then you add in the excesses of the current teachers unions and school districts and the parents who refuse to believe little Johnny is a behavior problem and disrupting class. For the cherry on top, you then mandate a single approach so it’s very hard to experiment. I think it’s impressive that anyone gets educated at all in the U.S. K to 12 system.

    My post was less a response to your post than showing you another approach to the problem and it’s side effects. I find a lot of these discussions become very U.S centric and it locks the discussed idea range into a fairly small volume.

    I think that Canada could do much worse than streaming students primarily by parental involvement. Streaming by ability is a tricky problem, particularly in the highly egalitarian U.S., and using the proxy of parental involvement has fewer apparent issues. Ability is hard to measure until it’s too late, has both nature and nurture components (and we don’t really know how to distinguish and cultivate the nurture parts, Also, many people claim to not believe in the nature component), and puts the onus on the child (who is supposed to be innocent and unready for such responsibility according to the standard narrative). Parental involvement is obviously easy to change (at least that is the assumption), only slightly difficult to measure, correlates some with general intelligence (and social class), and the onus is on the parents (who are supposed to be mature and worldly). The exceptions to these tendencies are handled by moving the kid to the “lesser” program.

    Far from perfect, but I’ve seen worse. When I moved to California and was waiting for my green card I went back to college since I couldn’t work and didn’t want to get bored. I will grant that my fellow students weren’t the cream of the crop, but the general level of education was very depressing. MY standard advice to any teenager who asks (and appears to be smart and disciplined enough) is to test out of high school as soon as possible and head to a 2 year college to fill in the gaps. You will do it faster and it will be less boring. And if you aren’t disciplined enough yet, you soon will be and in an environment where mistakes are less fatal.

    Part of what interests me in this is that the streaming evolved with no policy intent and originally with no educational difference other than the intent of teaching french. It also appears to be stable and self reinforcing. It’s a bit like the old Paris Metro pricing scheme:

    “Until about 15 years ago, when the rules were modified, the Paris Metro operated in a simple fashion, with 1st and 2nd class cars that were identical in number and quality of seats. The only difference was that 1st class tickets cost twice as much as 2nd class ones. (The Paris regional RER lines still operate on this basis.) The result was that 1st class cars were less congested, since only people who cared about being able to get a seat, not have to put up with noisy teenagers, etc., paid for 1st class. The system was self-regulating, in that whenever 1st class cars became too popular, some people decided they were not worth the extra cost, and traveled 2nd class, reducing congestion in 1st class and restoring the differential in quality of service between 1st and 2nd class cars.”
    (from http://www.dtc.umn.edu/~odlyzko/doc/paris.metro.pricing.txt . It’s not clear from the above that 1st and 2nd class cars were hitched together and that the *only* difference in the cars is the cost to enter them.)

    All you need to have is two systems with a minor difference that selects for something even weakly correlated with performance (like parental involvement and a 0.01% better chance of finding employment) and voila! You will have streaming after a handful of years. Evolution is grand. (parenthetically, why is it that so many people who claim to believe in evolution don’t act like it?)

    Standardized testing is a weak reed, but there has to be some way of evaluating teachers. You can use spot checks, but once the word gets around that an inspector is in the school or is coming (and the word always gets around) the checks become useless. It would be best if the tests were supplemented with some measure of student ability but that leads into dangerous and non politically correct waters.

    This is a bit disjoined but it’s more of an idea dump as I read and think about the problem.

  8. @John Dougan:

    Re: It’s amazing that anyone gets an education in the K-12 system

    Well we do have private schools, and from what I understand there’s an increasing number who are home schooling. From everything I’ve heard over the years, home schooling has turned out to be a tremendous success. It’s a lot of work on the part of the parents, but home schooled students tend to have a high level of proficiency.

    A while back I wrote a post which was a partial transcript of a panel discussion among corporate CEOs, and one government reformer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2007. All of them said the same thing: Some of them put their children for a time in high quality public schools here, but all of their children now are in private schools. This would not have been the case 20+ years ago, I think, because there were more public schools worth attending.

    Re: discussions become U.S.-centric

    Yes, I wish there was a wider discussion as well looking at other approaches. This is a case where U.S.-centrism particularly hurts us. It’s plain to me that we’re in denial. When surveyed most parents think that their own school is doing great. Teachers organizations here have an answer for everything.

    When international rankings come up saying we score equivalent to Latvia in math and science proficiency, they ignore the rankings, saying they’re comparing apples and oranges: We bring in all comers to secondary education, whereas in Europe they tend to select the best students for their high schools. Why is it any wonder that we’re losing job opportunities that require a high level of understanding in math, science, and engineering? Yet we hear complaints about how companies are outsourcing jobs overseas at a terrible rate and we want to go after the corporations for taking them away from us. No, we’re not the problem (in this instance). They are, so we say. Taxes and regulation have a role to play as well, so it’s not entirely about education quality, but we’re fools if we ignore it. Besides, in the past we’ve been able to supplement our lack of technical education by bringing in better educated foreigners and making them naturalized citizens. That’s been more difficult in the last decade.

    These organizations add on a claim I’ve heard over and over again. Perhaps you can shed some light on it. They claim that the other countries that we look to as producing better educated people are studying our system, and are trying to be more like us. So the claim goes, “We must be doing something right,” as if that negates all criticisms. I have heard about how foreign countries are trying to incorporate an environment that encourages more creativity, but I doubt that they’d be trying to emulate the way in which we teach academics.

    Re: streaming and a tiered system based on performance

    Well what you describe sounds like what we have here with charter schools and private schools. The more involved parents who care about education send their kids to these schools, rather than the regular public schools, because of the belief, which seems to be well founded, that their kids will receive a better education there.

    It also sounds a bit like the dynamics of a market-oriented solution to me. I’ve heard the same argument used in support of toll roads for years. The public roads, which everybody can drive on, suffer from “the tragedy of the commons”. They are congested, overused, and are not as nice to drive on. Toll roads tend to be nicer to drive on and are uncongested, because people only use toll roads when they really need them–when the price is worth it. They are kept up better because they are used less, and the company that takes the toll has an incentive to keep the roads nice, to keep people driving on it, and they set the toll (in a free market situation, anyway) according to their costs for doing road maintenance, plus some profit margin. The city benefits as well, because part of the proceeds go to the state in a franchise fee. That’s taking the analogy too deep for this discussion, but I think you can see the similarity.

    Re: Evolution is grand

    I remember Alan Kay talking about this, and I realized it as well, evolution does not necessarily produce “the best” system. With evolution in Nature most species have died out via. natural selection, because they were unable to adapt to their environment. What’s occurred in the U.S. education system can be described as an evolutionary process as well, but not in a good direction.

    The key, I think, to having a system that improves is to have a community that values education (by which I mean academics), first of all, and for there to be responsive feedbacks in the system that allow it to be influenced by those community values. Maybe we have that now, but somehow we’ve lost the part about valuing good education, and it may be we’ve lost the meaning of what a good education is.

    Robert Compton, a technology VC, produced a documentary a couple years ago called “2 Million Minutes”, which talks about how high school students spend their time in America, India, and China. Americans split their time in their youth a lot more thinly. There’s less of a focus on academics, and more emphasis on emotional/social development. That’s fine if we’re all going to be team managers. It’s not fine if we want to continue to develop as a modern civilization.

  9. This gave me an idea… imagine if teachers assigned homework which occasionally *required* a parent’s involvement? Whether it be a question that asked the student to “think out loud” while the parent wrote down the answers (so you could see the different handwriting), or perhaps a much more challenging question that the student would not be able to handle on their own but an adult would. While this wouldn’t count against a student’s grade (why punish the students because they have poor parents?), it would signal the teacher to find out why a student is not going to the parent for help with school work.

    Too many people want to act like they have zero input into their kids’ education. Put ’em on the bus with pencils and lunch, and their job is done. It’s more like participating in a childbirth. If you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean. The room is filled with doctors and nurses, and the husband and at least one other family member are typically very involved, like helping the woman walk around and get to the bathroom, getting beverages and cool rags, playing cheerleader, and otherwise acting as a support system for the process. That’s how parents need to be with the education of their children. But they do not want to do this, for whatever reason (laziness? ignorance? fear that they don’t know enough to help? not enough time?), and their attitude is, “I’ve put this problem 100% in the hands of the experts in the school system, so any failure of my child to learn is the school system’s fault.”

    My son turned 3 in June. Last year he went to a little pre-school that was for about 3 hours a day. Did they try to teach stuff to the kids? Sure. But they stuck to “age appropriate” teachings. The problem in my mind is that when you stick to a baseline that is at or below average, you hold back the kids who are more advanced, or are capable of more than the baseline. So I try to teach my son more than what he’s learning in school. Some of it, he clearly isn’t ready for (despite my best efforts, he still only recognizes “O” and “H”, and no numbers). Other stuff he is slowly getting the hang of (like “left” and “right”, which my pediatrician says is something kinds usually don’t understand until they are 4, which surprised me). But without nudging (I don’t like pushing a young child) him towards excellence, he will never be doing more than the baseline that the schools have to stick to. I am lucky that he is a total daddy’s boy, because he’ll work his tail off for me when I ask him to. I just hope he stays this way when he gets older!

    At the same time, I have a lot of fear that his education will suffer when he goes to school. I live in a state where they celebrated when the graduation rate rose from 55% to 65%. I am stunned on a regular basis when talking to locals at how bad their education is… I am talking about things like not knowing how many states are in the US! No matter what I do, it is hard to fight against the low expectations and low standards of the local schools, and I don’t have the finances to send him to a private school.


  10. @Justin:

    I think it’s great you’re making efforts with your child. My sense from having looked back on my own school experience, particularly Jr. high and high school, is that there probably were parents who were teaching their children stuff at home that they weren’t getting in school. I’ve heard people talk about that more recently. There were certain students who just went above and beyond what most of the other kids, including me, were doing, and I can’t see how they could’ve come up with what they did just from sitting in the same classes I had.

    I’m hesitant to suggest this for your child, because I’ve gotten some cautions about video-based learning systems from educators, but there’s this infomercial I’ve been seeing on TV called “My Baby Can Read”, and it literally shows 6-month-old babies and 1-year-olds recognizing words, and it shows children around 2 years old or younger reading children’s books out loud by themselves. No matter how hard I look at it I can’t see how this is being faked, either. It looks promising, but I have my reservations about it. From what I understand it’s just a videotape (or perhaps a series of them) that’s designed to get kids’ attention and it apparently teaches them to recognize words and read full sentences just by having them sit there and watch it, and respond to it. This is the part that I’ve heard educators warn about, because there’s no interaction with a real person. So this sort of thing could lead to a desire for stimulation from cool eye candy, and attention-getting devices, not by interaction, not by creating something from an action and seeing what happens. Of course with infants this hasn’t developed yet, so there’s more of an excuse to expose them to stuff where they can just sit passively and respond. From what I remember it’s being sold online as well as via. a toll-free number, and there’s a money-back guarantee if you aren’t satisfied. They may even have something for a child your kid’s age. What I wish they would’ve done instead is published a book or a combo with a videotape for parents, plus materials, so that they could carry out the same exercises with their kids. I dunno. Maybe parents could just watch the video and get some ideas about techniques they can use themselves. Anyway, just an idea.

    The parental involvement idea is certainly one to try. I think it would be important to orient the parents to this up front so it’s not sprung on them. In the area where you are I imagine parents would take some convincing, because they might think that this activity represents a decline in the quality of their kids’ education, when in fact it’s an effort to improve it, because they might think, “Why is this being offloaded onto me? You’re the experts.”

    With the exception of the really great schools I think with just about any school you put your kid in, parental involvement will always enhance it somehow. If you look at Alan Kay’s story of his schooling, I think he went to public schools throughout. He didn’t always get along with the teachers, because they wanted him to put down “the correct answer”. Well for him, he wondered, “Well what really is the ‘correct’ answer?”, because he saw early on before he went to school that the same thing can be perceived from different points of view. Eventually he found the scientific outlook, but before then I’m sure he had a lot of questions about “the correct answer”. He said that in his experience his school didn’t really teach math, but rather arithmetic and calculation. He had to go to his dad sometimes to get his math questions answered, because at school they would give him pat answers, which were inadequate. In a lot of schools, even the good ones, they don’t teach fully what science really is. At best they just teach aspects of it. So I imagine that a good school helps in terms of the subjects they teach and the perspective that their teachers offer, but parental involvement is also real important. Maybe you’ll be the one giving your kid the great education he deserves, and the school can just be supplemental. Hey, maybe he could even test out of a few grades.

  11. Funny that you mention that program for teaching kids to read. In the discussion with my pediatrician this week (my son had his 3 year checkup, so I bombarded her with questions), she said that he should be able to recognize his name spelled out, but not individual letters, which gives a powerful clue into how that system works.

    My belief, as someone who is trying to lead a young child through learning, is that it is teaching children to recognize visual patterns and associate them with sounds, and if they understand the sounds (which they will, as they learn to speak), they will indirectly learn the meaning of the words. The problem is, it’s more or less teaching a child kanji (the Japanese “alphabet” where each symbol represents a word, you need to know thousands of kanji to be literate) and it is much less flexible and useful than understanding the alphabet as a tool to generate the audible words (the “hooked on phonics” system).

    For me, I am a HUGE reader, and I actually have the OPPOSITE problem… I know the meaning of a large number of words that I have never heard pronounced, and it is embarrassing when it comes up (a few days ago, it was “osteoporosis”, which I’ve only heard a few times in advertisements). The big thing for me was being really observant and curious. I use root words, prefixes/suffixes, and related words the way others using phonics, as a building block to understanding words and language, so I can usually understand a word even if I’ve never encountered it before. Unfortunately, this is a skill that is quickly dying, in no small part because no one learns Latin anymore. While I never took Latin, I kind of reverse engineered it along the way…


  12. @Justin:

    I think you’re probably right about that program, and it’s a very good observation. I hadn’t thought of that. Now that I think about the ad, nowhere in it do they show the kids calling out letters. It’s all word recognition. I wonder if they’re able at such young ages, though, to recognize individual letters and their many sounds when used in combination with others. I wonder if teaching pattern matching impedes their ability to learn the parts of words later.

    My mom taught me to read when I was 4 or 5. She found it pretty easy to get me going. She would have me read road signs when we’d travel. She used phonics, sounding out the letters individually (“buh” for “B”, for example) and then in combination, while reading the letters and combinations. I still had a lot to learn about how words sounded, because the sounds changed depending on the letter combinations, and the combinations didn’t always have the importantly different letters right next to each other.

    A TV show I remember that helped reinforce my learning of how words sounded was “The Electric Company” on PBS. They’d have these little segments where they’d focus just on prefixes and suffixes, showing that there were lots of words with the same ones. The middle of the words sounded different, but the “before” or “after” parts sounded the same. They were kind of like phonics exercises. They’d break up the words into their “sound parts” and put it to music. It was very effective with me.

    I started using big words at an early age. I’m not sure why. They would just come to me. I really wasn’t trying to show off. I would want to say something, and I would occasionally translate the meaning of what I wanted to say in my head into big words. I think I liked the fact that a single word could carry so much technical meaning inside it. I tended to pick them up effortlessly just listening to adults talk. The embarrassing thing for me is I’d mis-associate a word with a meaning sometimes. I’d pick up my own interpretation of what a word or a phrase meant, observing how adults used it, and I’d start using it that way. After I’d done this a few times my mom would look at me funny and say, “Uh, Mark, that’s not what that word means,” and then she’d explain it. I still have to check myself today. Usually I get the associations right, but sometimes I’ll want to write something in my blog or in a comment, and a word will just come to me. I think it expresses what I want to say, but then I’ll look up the word and it’s something completely different.

    I got into Greek and Latin roots in school, but not until 5th grade. I don’t think it’s a very strong skill with me. I know prefixes and suffixes and what they mean in English, but I couldn’t explain their origin or their original meaning off the top of my head.

    From what I understand, the way you know the meaning of words before you hear them is the way that the masters of the spelling bee understand words. Have you checked out the movie “Akeelah and the Bee”?

    Re: Latin

    I never had it. I always heard it was really hard to learn, and it was explained to me that it’s a dead language anyway. So I figured it wasn’t that valuable. I took French in high school. I have a friend I’ve known since I was child who came from a French family, and I had always wanted to learn the language. To this day it’s enabled me to kinda-sorta understand other written Romantic languages, like Spanish, because they were all based on a root source.

    I was amazed that a few French words made it into English almost unchanged. One of them I recognized was “revenue”. In French it comes from the French verb “revenir”, which means “to return”. I did a little search, though, and according to one source they say it comes from Latin: “re”, which means “back”, and “venio”, which means “come”. “Revenu” (in current French) and “revenue” (from “Old French”) is the past tense of “revenir”. It means, “was returned”. Anyway, at the time it reminded me that at one point in England’s history it was ruled by French royalty, and so the official language of the English court was French. From what I understand, many legal terms, like “voir dire”, the term for interviewing potential jurors before trial (meaning “to see”, and “to say” or “tell”) come directly from French.

    I read several years ago that most of the major languages spoken in continental Europe, except for German and English, all derived from this same root source, which was based on Latin, and an amalgamation of some regional languages from a couple thousand years ago. Apparently the languages that came from this base evolved in two distinct ways, and this separation was determined roughly by a river, which I can’t remember. So French, Spanish, and the like evolved one way, and languages like Italian evolved a different way.

    I remember years ago when Vice President Quayle was visiting in Latin America, and he was talking about the language and culture of the region, saying he didn’t understand it too well. He said something like, “I wish I had learned more Latin.” People laughed at that, saying, “Oh look. He’s in Latin America and he thinks they speak Latin.” When I heard that it did sound funny, but then I thought, “Well wait a minute. That’s actually a pretty intelligent thing to say, because Latin is an ancestor to those languages.” I mean, why was it called Latin America in the first place? It bugged me that Americans didn’t get this. What was worse is most of the people who had heard it, even supposedly intelligent, educated people, thought this was further evidence that Quayle was a dimwit. IMO they should’ve been looking in the mirror at themselves!

  13. @Justin:

    I had forgotten about this. I remember an incident a few years ago where I did the same thing you were talking about. We were having a discussion on the Squeakland list about Intelligent Design for some reason and how it was pseudoscience based on some unfounded assumptions. I remember talking about the term “artificial”, saying that it was a term, at least in its common usage, that allowed too much interpretation in the context of science, allowing people to confuse notions of what’s “intelligently designed”. I was trying to think of a more specific term for things that were made by humans. It took me thinking for a few minutes, but I came up with the term “anthropogenic” on my own. I didn’t know the word existed in the English language. I thought it even had some cultural implications, which seemed like a nice fit. That was really the first time I had done such a thing, and I thought myself fairly smart for doing it. Then a year or two later I started seeing other people using the term “anthropogenic global warming”. This not only confirmed to me that I had constructed a legitimate word, but that I wasn’t the only one to have thought of it. Scientists use it, too.

  14. Children have a very odd way of recognizing things. My son was able to recognize people and TV characters very quickly if he saw them often enough. Around 2 1/2, he could recognize people he had not seen in a long time (a few months) or who he had only met once or twice. Around age 2, he was able to recognize abstractions of concepts… for example, if he saw a picture of an animal for the first time, he could recognize a painting or a drawing of the animal as well, even if it was not very realistic, a different color, etc. His only trouble with that is that he keeps thinking white horses are sheep…

    But at the same time, individual letters or numbers are outside his ken, and the pediatrician says that this is perfectly normal. He is just no grasping right and left, and I’ve been working on that for a while now… again, perfectly normal for the age. It is almost like they need COMPLEXITY in the pattern to help them discern and remember the pattern.


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