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Measuring Learning Growth


Supporters of the "growth model" approach—measuring individual student growth over time—argue that it is a positive alternative to the single end-of-the-year tests often used to satisfy the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, and a way to determine teacher effectiveness.

Indeed, "the education 'growth model' seems poised to become the latest 'best idea ever' in the faddish world of education," John Merrow writes in this Education Week commentary.

But, Mr. Merrow warns, the idea will not work in urban schools, where the student-turnover rate is often high. Unless schools align their curricula and tests, measuring the growth of students who move between schools—who are often the most needy, most vulnerable, and lowest-scoring, he says—will be hard to achieve.

What do you think? Would measurement approaches based on "learning growth" resolve some of the concerns over NCLB? What is the most effective way to measure the growth of students who move between schools?


In a word, yes! I teach Earth Science at an Alternative Middle School in Michigan. All of my students come from poor urban neighborhoods. They have all failed out or been kicked out of their homeschools, and all are considered at-risk for a variety of behaviors (gang violence, drugs . .etc). In Michigan, the State releases the MEAP tests from past years for general use in the classroom. I give my 8th graders the test the first day they enter my classroom. I also re-test them after 3 weeks, and then 5 weeks from the start of the school year they have to take the real MEAP. test. Scores generally start very low, with maybe only 5 % of my kids passing the test on the first day. For the past two years I have had about 30% of students pass the actual MEAP. That's up from 0% when I started this job 6 years ago. Keep in mind I have only 5 WEEKS to make this happen. Also, due to high turn-over, I often have new students entering my classroom on the week of the test. Nevertheless, a "learning growth" model is really the only fair way to asses how well the students are learning, or, to some extent, how well the teachers are teaching.

I should also add that the help my students acheive these scores we conduct hands-on experiments every day in preparation for the test! Keep them busy at all times and always working with their hands. Also, you need a very effective classroom management style. Personally, I get a lot of milage out of a couple of time-out chairs.

One last thing. On the day of the test this past October I had two girls who flat-out refused to complete their MEAP science tests. I called one of the girl's fathers, but all he did was get on the phone and tell his daughter "do your best." Then I called her mother, who promtly drove up to the school and sit with her daughter until she had finished her test. I was unable to contact the second irl's family, so there was nothing I could do to make her take the test. The first girl passed. The second girl, who had already passed her pre-tests, failed by just 4 points! The lesson, no matter what we do in the classroom we cannot control everything a child chooses to do. Consider the horse, water, and making her drink!

I teach in New Jersey and we have state testing in the fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school. Perhaps the growth model is already in place. Student's individual scores can be kept on computer and compared to the previous test. Since the tests are based on the state curriculum, the results could show where the growth is and where it isn't. This way each student is compared to him/herself, not to the rest of the population.

Mr. Merrow seems to be paving the way for discounting Value Added models before they can counter any popular arguments (like--our kids are really learning, you just can't tell because they started so far behind). Personally I'm for any new evidence to substantiate that some kids are getting less than they need, and help them to get more.

Certainly the testing system used for Value Add needs to be vertically aligned. Tennessee and some others have Value Added systems in place already. I don't expect that teachers, schools and districts will be ecstatic with results, however. They do allow a different kind of teacher to teacher comparison than has been available in the past. This could be helpful in planning for professional development, curricular support and other things--if these things are not viewed as punishment.

While he is concerned with the results from mobile students somehow skewing results, I am not certain that this needs to be true. My own district has been following mobility rates for a couple of years. The first year of research (by an outside firm) revealed three truths. 1) Changing schools midyear negatively affects academic achievement (summer moves do so to a lesser extent). 2) Public housing supports stability of students (one school studied had very low mobility due to a housing project). 3) The district could (through implementing new and EXISTING policies) impact mobility.

In my state the "growth model" is completely arbitrary. What is "growth" for a year? And adding value means having MORE than one year's growth --- a fact often forgotten.

We would not take our car to a mechanic who loved the car, kept is safe locked in the garage overnight, talked to it about how great it was, polished it all up so that it looked nice --- but never fixed the engine problem for which you had entrusted him. Why do we accept teaching that doesn't teach?

I'm not following you Rosemary. How do we get from "growth models are arbitrary" to the acceptance of "teaching that doesn't teach?" How exactly could educators prove that we really are "fixin' the engine trouble?"

I taught 5 years in a Court & Community School, where behavior was a daily problem. Teaching was going on, but no learning!

I think student evaluation has to be a combination of both. Data should follow students as they change schools. The "growth Model" is as important as state standardized test in creating a profile for a students progress. Teacher effectivenss would be harder to measure.

Somewhere in all this desire for teacher accountability it needs to be remembered that there should be a degree of parental and student accountability. Without regular attendance, a desire to get classwork done, sufficient sleep and food, some students are at a disadvantage. In our state the tests were originated before NCLB as diagnostic tests. They were turned into punitive tests shortly thereafter. And, the tests which were designed to diagnose what needed to be taught the following year somehow became tests used to determine what should have been taught already. In our state they have turned Blooms Taxonomy on its head and plunged right into analysis prior to realizing that a knowledge base is necessary. Students with a rich background are better able to deal with analysis and synthesis than are those with less opportunity. Also, students with reading difficulties are unable to succeed in other areas because all of the tests are essentially reading tests. Teachers teach to the needs of the students by using strategies address multiple intelligences and individual needs through programs involving leveled reading. Yet, the tests strip away all the support systems established for meeting the students' needs, and test them as if they are all capable of taking the same style of test. The only assistance they may have is being granted 2 1/2 hours to complete what some may have completed in less than 1 hour.
The tests aren't designed to actually show individual growth. Also, there are students who, for whatever reason, cannot perform on standardized tests. Their scores continue to be below level when their classwork and abilities are higher than the tests can measure.

The value-added growth model is the best alternative put forward so far to the assessment issues found in NCLB. Rather than comparing this year's class to last year's at a given grade level with no consideration of variability between the groups, the value-added growth model allows educators to see how much a student has grown in one year's time. If they have grown by at least one year in a subject area, that allows educators to see what is working. If not, then educators can look to see what other factors are coming into play, such as teaching strategies used, family influences, difficulties with reading/writing in the English language,etc. Dealing with the mobility of students would require each state to have a P-12 database that would allow data on students to be transferred seamlessly from one district to another, including last year's test scores. All bets are off when a student transfers between states; since each state has set their own standards, comparing tests scores from one state to another would be like comparing apples and oranges.

One of the reasons our district hired the current superintendent was because he stated that he was in favor of the value-added growth model. We felt that it made more sense to follow the students' progress year to year than to compare the success of one classroom of students to another. But, for some reason, he hasn't pushed that in our assessment of student and school success. Our school district continues to be rated as "excellent" but we are under so much pressure to improve that everyone is stressed out. We pay our teachers much less than other districts with "excellent" results, too. Yet, all they do is push. Morale is not good at the schools, and the stress is bad for the students and the staff.

A parent advocate for gifted students and
a special ed teacher, I find the growth model far superior to testing as per NCLB. It seems that growth model data would actually allow for diversity in learners and reduce the ridiculous one size fits all programming that plagues public schools. Coming from the perspective of the gifted, FINALLY, under a growth model, it would matter that the gifted acquire new skills. I have been advocating for such a change in my district and have even made comparisons between data obtained via achievement versus growth. The
difference in perspective is amazing and makes me wonder how the US policymakers missed this option,
unless they had other motives. I look forward to major reform, hopefully prompted in my state of
Florida by the faulty state test which produced inflated scores. Our high stakes test is used to
make retention decisions for third graders, teacher and school bonuses to schools with high proficiency even if they have low growth, attain a school grade,
and sanction low proficiency yet high growth schools. Perhaps the madness will stop.

How will a "growth model" or ANY model which compares change in student performance to standards have any validity when the standards themselves keep changing, often for no reason other than "that's the way they want it 'downtown'"? The "orderliness" of any model of measurement is a joke when the standards change for random or NO reasons. Do we need to maintain a database of "multiple threads" of growth-tracking, comparing student performance to "the standards of last year" as well as the standards of three years ago? It would seem so, if we are to track the growth of a learner who entered a school system X years ago and has endured major and minor redirections in curricula as he ran the gauntlet over the years! Wow! Suzy has really GROWN in math! But on the other hand, using the standards we had in place during her previous 2 years in the district, she has actually gone backwards.

Since the level of central office understanding of formative curriculum evaluation is...shall we offer...quaint, we seem to get the capricious "innovations" in curriculum/instruction that often attend the employement of a new central office administrator or his/her friend-who-will-save-the-children.

Before ANY more squabbling over this or that "model" of student performance assessment, how about an agreement on scientific standards of measurement to validate curriculum development? At the very least, how about the schools-of-ed training new teachers to be aware of good and bad curriculum evaluation and stressing a professional obligation for them to make their awareness know to the principal? Such should be accomplished in regular faculty meetings and not be unlike the "mortality review" obligation of physicians on staff at hospitals. Sure, most "newbies" would "shut up" and "go along", but the opportunity to be intellectually and professionally honest would exist as policy.

In a country where states have to inflate test scores in order to make annual yearly progress, is the question even important? Rather, shouldn't we instead be asking, "What is the long-term effect on children and teens when we -- as a nation -- continue to deny that reading scores for secondary students are as low now as they were in the early 1990s??"

Decoding does not teach children to read. The evidence is mounting. Instead, it contributes to the so-called "fourth grade slump" (reading ability that stalls at or below a fourth grade level). Yet, decoding is where we've spent billions of tax dollars to improve reading ability over the last five to seven years. Ever more disturbing is the fact that a handful of "experts" in positions of power with Reading First accumulated MILLIONS by steering approvals toward "their" programs (re: conflict of interest and Reading First).

Digging just a little further back: keep in mind that two distinguished panels of "scientific experts" (with one common denominator: Sally Shaywitz, M.D.) told us in 1998 and again in 2000 that explicit, systematic phonics instruction would improve reading scores. Unfortunately, those "scientists" failed to communicate to schools the dilemma of focusing too much attention on the identification of individual words (decoding) and the cost to sentence comprehension (the all-important integration of multiple forms of knowledge necessary to comprehend text).

I feel so badly for our nation's secondary students. As their reading skills deteriorate, they wonder why. We've all been duped. Billions wasted...again. If you disagree with me, how do you explain NO IMPROVEMENT in secondary scores??

Diane Hanfmann - well said!

Utilizing a growth model not only provides an excellent methodology for assessing individual student growth, but can also be used to assess the quality of academic materials in use over a period of years prior to new adoptions, as well as identifying areas that might benefit from additional teacher training. The missing piece of the puzzle, however, is a standard to which all students are measured. Using each state's accountability test as the benchmark for measuring student growth on this scale is ineffective - because you can't track students who move between states (an example in Florida is migrant workers' children). This builds the case for national standards - against which this type of analysis would be effective and possible. This doesn't mean that states can't have their own tests... but a national set of standards, establishing a common denominator, gives the growth model the controlled variable that is currently missing.

As Dr. Rhonda Bonnstetter has mentioned above, the solution to Mr. Merrow's concern would be a way to track individual students as they move from one district to another. Thanks to database technology, this is theoretically possible.

A number of states are in the process of implementing statewide unique identifiers for students (akin to a Social Security number, but for K-12 education).

The Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA) is working on developing a "common language" for data elements used by administrative systems at school districts, so that data objects from any SIF-certified vendor could be shared with other products. In the future, that could lead to individual student achievement results being exported to a state-level data management system, which would be able to see the whole picture (except for students who have left or recently come to the state). Yet there are skeptics in the K-12 data management industry as well -- some are concerned that the vendors who advise SIFA are more interested in protecting their data than coming up with moveable objects that have enough detail to be valuable.

Whatever model you choose, the primary use of this information (however questionnable) is managerial, not diagnostic. Ed departments want to measure the effectiveness of states and schools, schools want to measure the effectiveness of teachers. How do teachers measure the effectiveness of students or students measure the effectiveness of themselves? Through informal and formal diagnostic testing based on solid standards and criteria. The focus needs to be put on high quality formative assessment that is grounded in high quality curriculum and standards.

Referring back to the original article, monitoring of individual student growth over time does not depend on standard curriculum and assessment tools between schools. Curriculum-based assessment techniques, for example, have been shown to have above-average validity and reliability even when the assessment probes are not pulled directly from the school-specific curriculum. In addition, these data can be tracked using web-based data storage and analysis software such as Aimsweb. States such as Florida, and many school implementing Reading First strategies, are already tracking these data. So, it is possible and accurate to track individual student growth over years, even when those students move from school to school. (However, our technology is limited as children get older - measuring consistent student proress in science, for example, is more difficult than reading).

In terms of whether it is advisable, the best method of assessment is always "multi-rater, multi-modal." The more data points you have to evaluate a student, a teacher, a school, or a district, the more accurate the assessment. End-of-year state tests are one form of assessment, and many actually happen to be quite valid and reliable. However, they do not - in themselves - complete the assessment process. Individual student growth data, other formative data, teacher reports and informal data collection, teacher observations, and other data sources would round out our current approach to assessment under NCLB.

After about 40 years in ed r&d and the classroom(last 20, immediately, prior to retirement was public school 7th grade full time science teaching)I grieve for my profession. It lacks even the appearance of agreement on a theory of how to measure it's success in terms of that of it's clients, the learners, and the single most heated generator of discussion continues to be a law written by Dubbya and Teddy. God save education!

The point of testing seems to have been lost in the debate over "education reform". Testing has been historically used to measure student achievement, but has been blurred into a kind of teacher and school/school district assessment.
Many of the comments here suggest that this or that software would make student tracking more efficient and the information somehow more valid. Electronic tracking sounds very scientific, so very high tech and efficient, but it is still just a form of record keeping. If the information is more accurate, it is because more information is more readily available. The information is no more scientifically valid or significant as research findings.
It makes no difference how achievemebility purposesnt is measured. The achievemnet scores under NCLB are outcome based and do not give clear information about the input that caused the achievement. Teachers have been testing students for literally hundreds of years, and doing a fine job of it. Testing for accountability by the state, or even the school district is wasteful, relatively useless for accountability purposes, and there is no real value in debating how to rate the results. There is no value to be added to.

Bob Frangione raises a good point. Under NCLB a student's success is considered a "right." Teachers and schools are obliged to get the students to pass their tests, so the responsibility for success has been shifted away from the child. This is very backwards thinking indeed.

As I have mentioned, the students I teach are at-risk, often for criminal behaviors, and they are both savy enough to recognize this aspect of the law and devious enough to use it against their teachers; "I'm not taking this test becasue I want you to lose your job and for the school to shut down." The solution to this problem has already been suggested by Bobby above, many data points being used to give the clearest possible picture of a student's achievement. For example, I keep a record of every student's behavior and class participation that I can quantify into a numerical value to compare against a student's MEAP score. In other words if I see that Danny scored poorly on his test but only participated in classroom experiments 50% of the time and recieved many referrals to the office, then his score might not tell us very much about the quality of the teaching methods being utilized. For what it is worth, when I conduct item analysis after we get back our MEAP scores, from time to time I do find questions from the test related directly to experiments we conducted in class on which many students performed poorly. This tells me that it is time to find a better method for covering the material.

There are several indicators that provide a total assessemnt of a student in transition. Considering all measurements and asssigning an "advisor" to that student at the inital phase- whether it be a quarter or semester, will asssit in monitoring the student so he or she does not get lost in the system. One must consider the social and intellectual transition this student is going through, ie; making new friends, new teachers, family issues, resistance, change in school system. This all effects output of student work and grades.

Assessment in technology, learning tools etc... has its limitations. Timing of testing, standards testing throughout the year involves timing as well. The intense push to attain a numeric score of value during standardized test taking grows lax thereafter. It is difficult to assess at times its true potential for the student. At most times a student will top their score in the second semester while state testing is taking place (NCLB). following along the guise of NCLB

All of this is supposedly about "accountability."

There is a simple solution. Privatize schools, gives all parents voucher money, and let them choose a school that matches their own values/belief systems. Then, give parents the freedom to change schools whenever they see it in the best interest of their own child.

This will produce the accountability NCLB pretends to offer. Compulsory standards won't work because there is no single body of knowledge that all people need in order to lead a successful life. We're trying to play god, when waht we should be doing is freeing children and families to be the best they can and want to be.

Could you please expand on this idea of schools matching one's own "values/belief systems?" All American public schools already teach and uphold the Core Democratic Values; among them:Life, Liberty, Pursuit of hapiness, Common Good, Justice, Equality, Diversity, Truth, Popular Sovereignty, Patriotism, Rule of Law, Individual Rights, and Freedom of Religion. I fail to see how giving public dollars to private institutions, which can in turn choose the core values they wish to uphold and even add a few "beliefs" of their own as well, would work to foster the education of our children or promote the American Way.

Gee, testing mobile students will be difficult. Does that mean we should not do it??? I have heard Merrow speak and I find that he is a story teller, but not a social scientist or policy expert, so I would not necessarily follow his advice on weighty policy matters.

The only way to know how schools are doing in a given year is to measure the progress of their students over the course of that year and determine compare it to how similar students have done in other schools over the course of year. Average test scores (as opposed to growth) cannot do that.

What is truely important in education? Is it learning, or test scores? Do test scores really measure learning in any consistent and valid way? Learning occurs constantly. We all learn, students, educators, man or woman on the street. The best judges of how well the curricula have been mastered by students are the teachers. Professional teachers know what they are teaching, are constantly revising their methods for teaching to meet the needs of individual students, and are the most qualified to assess the development of students in their classes. NCLB is a nearly useless government program to supposedly track the effectiveness of the public investment in education. The law and its mandates add nothing to the ongoing process of education. At best, NCLB has become a scorecard of a national game of "Trivial Pursuit", measuring learning only by what knowledge is apparently acquired, with no guage of how or why it is acquired. Education is about opening minds, not filling them.

I believe that measuring something lets you see things that you could not see before.

As other commenters have said, this method could be a way to flag students who need additional help and give it to them. It can also provide opportunities for differentiated/enriched instruction and activities.

I am not sure I would want this method to replace other types of assessment. I do believe, however, that having another perspective on a particular student is very valuable.

I do NOT believe testing is a true measure of learning. For years I have taught the students who were 2-3 years below math benchmarks. I brought them along to at least one and a half years, which means they learned a great deal, yet did not meet 4th grade benchmark. To the state that means I have failed in my teaching, yet I know in my heart I did NOT fail those students. I taught them to love math and brought them up over 1-2 years in math.
I also have many students move in and out. I had two students move into my class who had missed 52 days of school. Of course they did not know know much about math, science, social studies, or reading, because they missed so much school. Still I must pass them unto 5th grade, because this is what our state says. We allow these kids to not learn, because we pass them along no matter what. DUH!
I love teaching, spend 10 hours or more a day at school to help my students to the best they can do and work on the weekends. However, I cannot MAKE any child learn if they do not want to learn. I cannot make parents get their kids go to school. I cannot make parents help their kids with homework. Teaching is a job for the teacher, the parents, the kids, and everyone else. Onless we all start working together, we will continue to let students down.
Testing tells us where a child is in their learning. It helps us know what to reteach and whether a child needs more help. Testing should never be used to say a teacher isn't good. There are many more ways to tell whether a teacher is doing their job or not.
I will continue to work hard, continue to love the kids I teach and do the best I can for them. I cannot learn for them or do their homework for them - that is up to them and to their parents.
Let me do my job and quit taking so much time away from my kids for testing. Use the money for all that testing to hire more teachers so we can have 25 students instead of 35 or more. Use the money so we have textbooks for all students. Use the money to teacher parents how to be parents.

Public schools DO NOT teach the American values of liberty and individual rights. Are you kidding?

In school we're taught to follow the herd, to set aside our own dreams and passions for the official standardized curriculum, to become obsessed with what others think of us, and to obey the chain of command.

We've been programmed since preschool not to realize our liberty and individual rights.

You want proof?

Americans don't participate in elections because they've never felt part of the democratic process in the first place.

Americans trust their leaders to go to war (even when their isn't evidence) because they don't want to upset the apple cart or be accused of being unpatriotic.

Americans work as wage slaves making someone else rich (usually someone who went to private school) because they're too afraid to stake their own claim.

To Mr. O's previous comment:

Parents don't agree at all as to constitutes a quality education. Some want a strict back to basics curriculum, others want an arts based curriculum, others want a techonology focus, others want an international focus, some want a religious/moral focus, and some want no focus at all. Some parents want their children to pursue their own interests at their own pace.

There is a reason no one is happy with public schools; individual families lack input in the type of education their family receives.

As a parent I have no choice in the public school my child attends, the teacher my child interacts with, the other students my child is surrounded by, the type of assessment from which my child is evaluated, or the curriculum my child is exposed to. If I don't like the quality of education my child is receiving, I have no recourse.

On the other hand, if my television isn't working, I can choose from 50 different technicians. If I don't like the service one offers, I get my money back and I can seek the service of another.

Bob & Mr. O:

Bob, I like your name :). I agree, first, with your points that teachers have a great deal of information that can be useful when assessing students. I also believe that the current system underutilizes this information, and should find ways beyond portfolio assessment to include teacher input.

At the same time, I disagree with one point made: I do not believe that teachers are necessarily the best at assessing student achievement. Much research has been done investigating how to truly capture "learning" through assessment procedures, and many teachers are not using these methods. I make this statement based (1) on research, which indicates that teachers' perceptions of student learning do not always match actual achievement, and the prevalence in use of psychometrically valid and reliable assessment procedures, and (2) on my personal experience in classrooms and schools working with teachers on measuring student progress. Unfortunately, I see many cases when teachers do not adapt their teaching methods or curriculum to match students' needs.

Bob, I value your point about not including teachers' perspectives in assessing learning and measuring effectiveness/accountability, and think we have a long way to go before we fully capture the wisdom of educators in our assessment process. However, I believe that teachers need to recognize the limitations in their training and experience, and that no one - teachers, psychologists, policy makers, etc. - currently possesses all the knowledge needed to make education work.


Increasing parent input and involvement is huge for increasing student achievement and overall educational success. However, referring in part back to my last comment, we all need to recognize that we aren't all experts in all areas of education. I do believe parents should be involved, but I do not believe they are experts in education and should have the right to direct how educators structure our educational system.

It is actually frustrating in my current profession to try to work with parents, and even some teachers, who let their beliefs about education interfere with expertise and experience in education. Schools are not churches - views about education should not all be treated equal, or as beliefs.

Though it has many shortcomings, one of the strengths in NCLB is that it is starting to move our educational system towards a data-based and research-based problem-solving system, and away from a education based on beliefs or other thoughts not founded on best practice. I'm not arguing that we've arrived at this goal, but I am arguing that we should want to get there.

If the goal of school is to produce independent, free-thinking citizens, then young people must have the opportunity to make choices about their own education.

Testing and holding students accountable assumes that we agree on the utility of the curriculum; no such agreement exists.

We've decided to homeschool because we don't like what constitutes a "rigorous, standards-based education." All we see is memorization, treating all kids the same, and locking kids away from experience in the real world.

Our 12 year old son interns two full days a week at a research laboratory, another day split between volunteering at an animal shelter and a soup kitchen, he has a part-time web design business, and the rest of the time he studies subjects of his own interest at his own pace. He's on neighborhood soccer and basketball teams, is a member of our church youth group, and has started a fledgling rock band with his buddies.

How do we know our son is learning? We talk to him? We observe his excitement and his growing independence. We provide feedback and counsel when we feel appropriate, and back off when we feel he needs to struggle through challenges on his own.

There is no reason public schools couldn't offer this same type of education based in choice and respect for the individual (yes even kids are individuals); but they won't because the system protects itself. By the way, our son's education costs next to nothing.

"The best judges of how well the curricula have been mastered by students are the teachers. Professional teachers know what they are teaching, are constantly revising their methods for teaching to meet the needs of individual students, and are the most qualified to assess the development of students in their classes." Cannot agree with this statement, at all.

Teachers...should be the most qualified to assess...their students but in reality many teachers find it difficult to give a true assessment of their kids. It's too easy for teachers to get to know their students and get close to them over the course of the school year. Many naturally root for them to do well and consequently can't be objective in their grading. I'm not taking teachers to the woodshed for this practice because it's simply human nature. That's why state tests for NCLB (at least in states like Massaachusetts and Arkansas) are so important. They give a true, objective picture of how kids are actually performing. How many years of inflated grades and social promotions did public schools endure before the business community and state legislatures screamed, "ENOUGH!"??? It was a state of ridiculousness.

Leisha: Home-schooling is certainly an interesting alternative to public schooling, and it sounds like its working out for you. To be sure, many kids would benefit from such choice and exposure as you've provided your son. Unfortunately, there is still a sizeable percentage of children who need different instruction to be successful. For some, that means more sequenced and focused instruction with basic skills. The goal, of course, is to prepare all children to become independent, self-motivated, and self-directing learners. However, many children are not prepared to take that step. For example, your 12-year-old son could probably not work in a lab or have a part-time web-design business if he could not read. There are, unfortunately, many 12-year-olds in that category. While including choice and engaging material in the curricula are still important, focusing on basic skills is as well with some kids.

Wouldn't it be great if our schools could meet both the needs of your son and those struggling students at the same time? As our society becomes more diverse in terms of educational preparation and readiness, it becomes harder to meet the needs of students like your son and non-readers - all in the same class. I personally know many teachers who feel absolutely awful that they can't do more for both groups of children - because they simply don't have the time or other resources to teach four different methods and curricula at once.

In the meantime, I am glad your son has the privilege of a mother that has invested so much effort into her son's education!

Having student test scores follow a child throughout his or her education, regardless of where the child goes to school is a fantastic idea. However, if we are going to take this to the next level, we should have portfolios that follow the children so that learning can be assessed regardless of city or state.
Such a file would travel with the health records and consist of a wide variety of student work, goals and achievements. One of the biggest issues with children who grow up moving around is they begin to lack accomplishment and find no reason to be in school or even alive. Giving them the opportunity to set goalsat that they can reach, no matter what their educational level, will help them begin to see why they are in school and understand what success is like.
Parents can mess up a child by moving him or her around, we as educators should be willing to take the time and resources to help these kids to be in a position for success. However great.


Kids will master "basic skills" when they have the desire to do so. Kids struggle in remedial reading/math classes largely because they're incredibly boring and there is little application to real life.
Allow kids to learn about subjects that interest them, and kids now have a REASON to learn basic skills.
We do it backwards. We say kids must master skills in order to play the game. Imagine if you tried to organize a basketball team and never let them actually play.
Let the kids do real work first, when they encounter an obstacle, there is the place to begin learning.

John Merrow, like most of us, has a selective memory about his childhood. He remembers the family measuring, but does not remember that his parents did not put up a standards bar which all their children were expected to meet. Nor did those parents punish the child who, in their minds, had not made adequate growth. Probably they took him/her to a doctor or fed him better.
Although he is correct in thinking that the "Growth model" is no panacea, he neglects to acknowledge that it is better than what we have now: a system that measures this year's students against last year's students and expects every one of them to have made the exact same amount of progress.. (John, did your parents expect you to grow to the exact height of your older brother and at the same rate?) Our parents were, and are, smarter than the educational decision makers in D.C. or close to home. We ought to be asking them--and the kids themselves--how learning should be measured.

I should have said in my earlier comment that parents whose children are not making expected growth not only consider a doctor visit or a change in diet, but also doing nothing. They remember that Dad was short until after he graduated from high school and they realize that every child is unique. They also know that children often have growth spurts and plateaus; it is foolish to expect a year's physical growth from every year of time. Unless a child is way off the average for age, it's best to just wait and see for a while. Although I do not suggest "waiting and seeing" in education, I do think that we need to be more relaxed about academic growth. My son, a highly successful civil rights attorney did not read until third grade. Then he began to read voraciously and has never stopped. Thank goodness that we and his teachers did not panic., He could have been working at McDonald's now!


Thanks for your response. I really believe that your comment, and mine, are getting at the age-old debate of "whole language" versus "direct instruction." Having worked with many low-achieving students, I couldn't agree with you more in your comment that kids need to want to learn, and once they do they can often achieve great things. However, even when motivated, they can't learn if they aren't taught.

If you put a child in a 10-foot-deep pool with an XBox 360 and a brand new bike on the other end, but the child has never learned to swim, the child will not swim to the XBox and the bike because he/she can't. Even if the child wants to, the child does not have the skills to do so.

Unfortunately, focusing only on a child's interests - and not the instruction the child needs to be successful - promotes frustration: the child wants more than anything to learn, but is not being taught.

I think we're both right - teach kids the basic (and advanced, when appropriate) skills needed to progress, but teach them in a highly engaging and motivating environment. One without the other, unfortunately, doesn't work. The whole language movement in the 80s, for example, focusing mostly on motivation and engagement, but neglecting basic skills instruction, failed wildly across America. Teaching skills (basic or advanced) in a rote and boring manner, at the same time, fail kids on a daily basis in environments I'm in.

Do this make sense?


I very much agree that children grow at different speeds - it is quite amazing, as you mentioned, to see someone finally catch on!

Unfortunately, the research demonstrates that your son is an exception. There is, to be sure, variation of learning growth between students. However, beyond a certain point, it is abnormal. We could probably both agree, for example, that a child who can't read in the ninth grade is in trouble. So, what is the cutoff? At what age should we be concerned if a child can't read? In reality, we need to get more specific - it's not just a matter of whether a child can or cannot read. There are many benchmarks that a child should meet along his/her progress toward reading fluency.

Fortunately, much research in the past 10 years (and before) has given us very strong indications of when children are "in trouble." For example, the statistical probability of a non-reading child in the fourth grade becoming a reader later in life is very, very low. This isn't to say that it's impossible, but unlikely (statistically).

To make sure kids don't get to the fourth grade without reading skills, we need to back up our assessment procedures and watch kids throughout their development. While we shouldn't necessarily be alarmed if a child learns one particular phonics skill, for example, a month later than someone else, we should monitor a variety of reading data to ensure appropriate progress.

Your example, Joanne, of the doctor's visit is an interesting one. I would challenge you to see reading problems, and other educational problems, not as innate physical abilities like height, as you mentioned, but as controllable factors that can be influenced, like disease. If you noticed that your child was coughing up blood, for example, I doubt that you would just say that your child would "grow out of it." You would likely see a doctor. The same goes with reading problems - if your child is continually struggling, let somebody know.

I don't equate physical characteristics with cognitive abilities. Comparing measuring height to measuring learning was was John Merrow's analogy, not mine. Rather than go through my whole philosophy of learning--developed over more than 40 years as an educator in differnt roles and at different levels--I would say that I mostly agree with Leisha. Although teaching is necessary for most children, the type of teaching and its context matter a lot. In education, as in most things in life, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." In most schools, especially now under NCLB, we are not only beating the "horses' but also their "wranglers" and force feeding them both polluted water.

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Recent Comments

  • joanne yatvin, educator: I don't equate physical characteristics with cognitive abilities. Comparing measuring read more
  • Bobby, Psychologist: Joanne, I very much agree that children grow at different read more
  • Bobby, Psychologist: Leisha, Thanks for your response. I really believe that your read more
  • joanneYatvin, Educator: I should have said in my earlier comment that parents read more
  • Joanne Yatvin, Educator: John Merrow, like most of us, has a selective memory read more




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