ChildsWork News, March 13, 2012: Spiraled Instruction, 3rd Grade Retention and More about ADD/ADHD Drugs

For this morning’s news, I wanted to take readers on a tour of some important issues in education and special needs through three, differing, yet related perspectives.

First, we check in with an old friend over at Education Week, David Ginsberg. In his classroom management blog post from early last week he brings up some important points about the instructional strategies that teachers use throughout the K-12 educational years. Focusing specifically on mathematics practices, Ginsberg asks if our approach to teaching math has stifled students’ ability to learn it. In an educational environment still buzzing about the STEM legislation proposed by President Obama, reconsidering our approach to teaching these important subjects seems highly relevant.

Next, a report from NPR decided to look at the opposite end of the educational spectrum: literacy education in the early years. Focusing on the transition from 3rd to 4th grade, the article addresses many states’ move to retain any 3rd grade students not reading at grade level as sort of a threshold number. As educators and school counselors focused on special needs children whose learning strategies and capabilities will necessarily differ, what are your feelings about this proposed threshold?

Finally, due to the overwhelming response that last week’s article on autism and ADHD medication generated, I thought we would take a moment to reprise. Another report, this time published in Sicence Daily via the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discusses the effects that differing levels of ADHD medications can have on the children who take it. Not surprisingly, higher doses equate to greater harm, which only exacerbates the need for clearer guidelines and more universal research on the topic. Parents and teachers, have you seen these effects first-hand?

Spiraled Instruction, Stifled Learning

By David Ginsberg, writing for Education Week’s Coach G’s Teaching Tips

y first teaching experience was as a substitute teacher in Chicago assigned to an 11th grade Algebra 2 class for ELL Polish students. I began by giving students an assignment their teacher had left for them. But no one attempted it, so I asked a boy who understood English if he and his classmates needed help. He laughed and, after he translated my question for his classmates, they laughed too. He then let me in on the joke: “We learned this in 7th grade.”

To me, however, it was appalling rather than amusing: 11th grade here = 7th grade there?! Yet what I later discovered was even more appalling: 11th grade here = 9th grade here. In fact, Algebra 2 was such a rehash of the district’s Algebra 1 course that some teachers called it “Algebra T-o-o.” And really, the same point could be made about math curriculum as a whole in the U.S., since most content for any given year is a review of content from previous years. (The Common Core State Standards may help change this, but I’ll believe it when I see it.)

This approach, where we touch on lots of topics each year–rather than go deep with fewer topics–and then revisit them in subsequent years is often called spiraling. But what it is for many students is stifling. And this is as true for kids who’ve yet to master a skill as it is for those who nailed it right away. I first noticed this when I taught 9th grade Algebra classes where every student was performing at least two years below grade level.

“Meet them where they are,” fellow math teachers advised me. Makes sense, I thought, since I couldn’t imagine teaching Algebra to kids who didn’t know basic arithmetic. But what I soon learned is that perception matters more to students than performance. For many kids, having seen something is akin to having learned something. “Man, we already know this,” students said, as I presented lesson after lesson on fractions, decimals, and percents.

Other students, meanwhile, knew they didn’t understand the material, but had given up hope of ever understanding it. The implication was therefore the same for all students: encore presentations on previous years’ topics were pointless. And though I was able to engage a few students when I found new ways to present old topics, one group of students was always slighted: those who really did “already know this.”

I’ve seen this same scene play out in dozens of math classes: teachers presenting material as though students had never seen it when they had actually seen it early and often. Consider, for example, area and perimeter, which students are first exposed to in third or fourth grade, and see again in middle school. Yet when area and perimeter come up in high school, most teachers–including me at first–teach them from scratch.

The problem, of course, goes back to the disconnect between kids seeing something and actually learning–and retaining–it. But if it didn’t sink in for them the first, second, or third time a teacher presented it, why should we present it again?

We shouldn’t. At some point the focus needs to be on students practicing math rather than teachers presenting it. And to me, that point begins right after students are first introduced to a concept or skill and continues for the rest of that year and subsequent years. Instead of limiting assignments to recent content from the current course, we should also include problems on earlier content from that course AND previous courses.

In other words, we should provide students spiraled practice, not spiraled instruction. When I did this in 10th grade Geometry classes, students said they learned more Algebra than they had learned in their 9th grade Algebra course. And, as a result, they were ready for more advanced math–starting with Algebra T-w-o.

Schools Get Tough with Third Graders: Read or Flunk (Excerpt)

By Tovia Smith, writing for NPR All Things Considered

There’s little dispute among educators that kids are not reading as well as they should be, but there’s endless debate over what to do about it. Now, a growing number of states are taking a hard-line approach through mandatory retentions — meaning third-graders who can’t read at grade level will automatically get held back.

To those pushing the idea, it’s equal doses of tough and love: You are not doing kids any favors, they say, by waiving them on to fourth grade if they aren’t up to snuff on their reading.

“It’s essentially just lying to the kid to say that, ‘You are there,'” says Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds, which is pushing the mandatory-retention approach in that state. “I think what we need to do is to draw a line in the sand and have the fortitude to step up and say this is the right thing for kids.”

Educators like to say third grade is when kids move from learning to read, to reading to learn. So if they don’t yet have basic reading skills, they need to stay back.

“It’s a gift of time,” Taylor says. “It is giving the kids the ability to get to the reading levels that they need so that they can be successful moving through their school career.”

Similar bills are being considered in New Mexico, Iowa and Tennessee; and have recently passed in Oklahoma, Arizona and Indiana. Advocates of the bills point to Florida, where schools started mandatory retentions 10 years ago. There, reading scores for kids who repeated third grade went from way below average to well above average.

That impressed many, including Hanna Skandera, who used to work in Florida and is now education secretary in New Mexico.

“That data that I’ve seen looks pretty darn remarkable,” Skandera says. “Florida’s Hispanic students alone are ahead of 31 other states’ total student populations in fourth-grade reading.”

But others are less impressed.

“[The students] are a year older,” says David Berliner, a professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University. “Of course they’re going to do better when they get into fourth grade.”

Berliner says that even in Florida, those gains faded by eighth grade. In the long term, he says, holding kids back tends to do more harm than good.

“It’s just mean-spirited,” he says. “If you’re willing to spend an extra $10,000 to give the kid another year of schooling, why aren’t you willing to put some money into a tutor over the next two years? That’s what we ought to do — not leave them back, but get them the resources.”

Study Pinpoints Effects of Different Doses of ADHD Drug; Finds Higher Doses May Harm Learning

From Science News Daily

New research with monkeys sheds light on how the drug methylphenidate may affect learning and memory in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The results parallel a 1977 finding that a low dose of the drug boosted cognitive performance of children with ADHD, but a higher dose that reduced their hyperactivity also impaired their performance on a memory test.

“Many people were intrigued by that result, but their attempts to repeat the study did not yield clear-cut results,” says Luis Populin, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

Populin was senior author of the new study exploring the same topic, now available in the early access section of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, published last week. In the study, three monkeys were taught to focus on a central dot on a screen, while a “target” dot flashed nearby. The monkeys were taught that they could earn a sip of water by waiting until the central dot switched off, and then looking at the location of the now-vanished target dot.

The system tests working (short-term) memory, impulsiveness and willingness to stick with the task, as the monkeys could quit “working” at any time, says Populin. The study used different doses of methylphenidate — the generic name for Ritalin — that were comparable to the range of clinical prescriptions for ADHD.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 5 percent of American children are taking medications for ADHD.

Strikingly, dosage had a major and unexpected impact. “At a low dose, the performance scores improved because the monkeys could control their impulses and wait long enough to focus their eyes on the target. All three were calmer and could complete a significantly larger number of trials,” says Populin, who collaborated with Jeffrey Henriques and graduate student Abigail Rajala on the study.

At the higher dose, “performance on the task is impaired,” Populin says, “but the subjects don’t seem to care, all three monkeys continued making the same errors over and over.” The monkeys stayed on task more than twice as long at the higher dose, even though they had much more trouble performing the task.

Although ADHD drugs are commonly thought to improve memory, “If we take the accuracy of their eye movements as a gauge of working memory, memory was not helped by either dose,” says Populin. “It did not get better at the lower dose, and there actually was a small negative effect at the higher dose.”

Memory is at the root of many intellectual abilities, but it can be affected by many factors, says Bradley Postle, a professor of psychology at UW-Madison.

Postle, an expert on working memory who was not involved in the study, says methylphenidate affects the brain’s executive function, “which can create an internal environment that, depending on the dose, is either more or less amenable to memory formation and/or retention. If you can concentrate, and are able to process information without being interrupted by distracting thoughts or distractions in your environment, you will perform much better on a memory test. Apparently, the lower dose of methylphenidate helped create the conditions for success without actually improving memory itself.”

Monkeys are not people, but monkeys in the study still reminded him of school children, Populin says.

“They made premature movements, could not wait to look at the target before they could be rewarded for doing so. It’s like a kid where the teacher says, ‘When you complete the task, raise your hand.’ But he can’t wait, even if he knows that by responding prematurely he will not get rewarded,” he says.

The study results had another parallel with daily life, Populin says. Drug dosages may be set high enough to reduce the characteristic hyperactivity of ADHD, “but some children say that makes them feel less creative and spontaneous; more like a robot. If learning drops off as it did in our study, that dose may not be best for them. Our monkeys actually did act like robots at the higher doses, keeping at it for up to seven hours even though their performance was so low.”

The logical way forward would involve a similar study with people diagnosed with ADHD, Populin says. With millions of children, and an increasing number of adults, taking medicines for the condition, “We have to be very careful about finding the right spot on the dose curve, or we may get changes in behavior that we don’t want. People think these drugs help improve memory, but our data say, ‘No, your memory is not getting better.’ At the higher dose, you get a behavioral improvement at a price, and that price is cognitive ability.”

AD Midd

About AD Midd

AD is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally, AD currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @ADMidd and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ADMidd1)

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