Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Matthew Effects in Learning

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29).

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a study entitled Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. The “Matthew Effects” in the title came from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

The study showed that students who, at an early stage, gained a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet progressed rapidly in learning. Those who do not rapidly develop an awareness of the spelling to sound correlation will fall farther and farther behind in subsequent years.

This concept of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) is easily taught to young children, but our public school systems are not doing it. Instead, for at least 70 years now they have been experimenting with other methods of teaching reading. The result is that about 1/3 of children quickly make the letter-sound connection on their own, another 1/3 will struggle at first but eventually get it and the other 1/3 will be labelled learning disabled. I believe a large percentage of learning disabilities are created by inadequate teaching.

Since reading skills are the essential tool for learning everything else that a child will encounter in school, those with poor reading skills fall farther and farther behind as they progress through the school system.

This is a perfect example of the quote in my last post: “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.”

What we need is a more flexible system that is focussed on results. In both learning to read and in learning basic math skills, a child needs to master one set of skills before being pushed on to the next level. This concept of teaching for mastery in the basic skills has long been absent from the public school system

If this sounds like an argument for home schooling, or the old-fashioned one-room school, well, yes, I believe that they are more successful models for results-oriented learning. In any case, parents need to overcome their sense of intimidation by the big school machine and be much more involved in their child’s learning, especially in the beginning stages.

Why parents need to be involved in their child’s education

Governor Jeb Bush of Florida was in Toronto at the end of October to speak on the educational reforms that have moved Florida schools from the bottom tier of educational achievement to near the top.  He spoke to the Economic Club of Canada at the Royal York Hotel, the talk was well-publicized and co-sponsored by the Society for Quality Education, yet the audience appears to have been remarkably free of any representatives of the Ontario educational system.

Perhaps they should have been paying more attention.  The OECD International Student Assessment statistics show that Canada is slipping one place per year in Math proficiency.  We are now down to 13th place, from 7th in 2006.  Even this ranking is higher than it would be if it only included the English-speaking provinces.  In Québec they still teach math by traditional methods and obtain the highest scores in the country.

In my humble opinion, the declining test scores are collateral damage from the all-out efforts of the educational bureaucracy to convince the public that education is a highly sophisticated process that is beyond the ability of mere parents.  It’s not that they don’t want to teach children to read and write, and to add and subtract, multiply and divide, but they want to do it in such a way that parents have no idea how they did it.

This does not appear to be an attainable objective.  At the same time that the public education system shows constantly declining results, studies in Canada and the USA show that home-schooling parents are obtaining results that are far superior.  Not only do those studies show that children do far better when taught by their parents, the results are the same for parents who never finished high school and those with a university degree or two.

The gurus of educational mystification react to those results either by ignoring them, or by suggesting that some kind of sinister brainwashing is taking place in these unsupervised home school settings.  Many of the rest of us believe the brainwashing is taking place in the public system and is the fundamental reason for trying to keep parents from understanding what is going on in school.  Blessed indeed is the mother whose daughter comes home from school and says, “Mom, the teacher said we shouldn’t talk to our parents about this because you probably won’t understand, but I really want to know what you think.”

For those of us who have opted out of the public system in favour of independent Christian schools, I fear that some of the attitudes of the public system still linger with us.  It is not the school’s responsibility to teach social skills to our children.  If my child is being a disruptive influence in school, it is my responsibility to apply corrective measures.  We should take an interest in what our children are learning and how they are learning it.  We should not be a disruptive influence on the school, either, but we really can help our children with concepts that they just don’t seem able to catch in class.  We should take an interest in the curriculum, too.  Our independent schools are apt to get the same mediocre results as the public system if they use the same curriculum materials.  There is a wealth of curriculum materials used by home schooling parents that are much more effective.

Back to Governor Bush.  Education reform was the main plank of his platform when he first ran for governor and once elected he began to implement his program.  All the schools in Florida were ranked by results as A, B, C, D or F.  The schools ranked A were given an extra $100 per student to spend as they wished.  Most schools used it for teacher bonuses.  Students in schools ranked F were given vouchers to switch to another school, either public or private.  Social promotion was banned after Grade 3.  Bush believes the first three years are spent learning to read and the following years in reading to learn.  It makes no senses at all to pass an illiterate child into Grade 4 and condemn him or her to a lifetime of ignorance.  The emphasis of his program was on providing measures of accountability and rewarding schools and teachers that were achieving excellence.

Other school systems in the USA are taking notice and emulating Florida’s measures, New York City, for example.  I’ve not heard of any Canadian public school authorities showing any inclination to follow suit.  Good education is not mysterious or expensive.  Our grandparents knew how to do it 100 years ago and those methods have not become outmoded, despite the pretensions of the educational bureaucracy.

As a final note, the Society for Quality Education offers free remedial programs for reading and math.  If your child is not doing well in these basic subjects, try these programs.  You will find them at: www.teachyourchildtoread.ca
www.teachyourchildmath.ca

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