Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Constructivist selection bias

It has recently occurred to me that one reason why Constructivist classrooms appeal to so many people--including so many newspaper reporters--is because of their inherent selection bias.

Consider this.  Only in certain types of classrooms can the Constructivist dream become a reality.  Only in certain classrooms, that is, can you have groups of students spending so much of the day doing hands-on group activities without running up against either a shortage of materials or total chaos.  And only certain teachers and principals have been trained in the methods and supposed virtues of Constructivist classrooms. 

All the factors that favor Constructivism--small class sizes, well-behaved students, in-class parent volunteers, specially-trained teachers--correlate in turn with school district wealth, which correlates in turn with the socio-economic status of the families that enroll at the school.

And, as study after study has shown, high socio-economic status is correlated, independently of particular schools and their pedagogical practices, with academic achievement.

Thus, it's easy to connect the dots between Constructivism and academic success--and pleasant learning environments and compliant children and the crème de la crème of specially-trained teachers (those who win the opportunity to teach such desirable children in such desirable environments)--even though Constructivism per se cannot claim credit.

Meantime, with the majority of our inner-city students stuck with Reform Math programs in non-Constructivist classrooms, you've got the worst of both worlds: mindless filling out of poorly-sequenced, dumbed-down worksheets whose convoluted directions and nonstandard algorithms no one understands.  Of course, in this case it's easy--way too easy--to blame everything but the curriculum.


daryl-michelle said...

In the wealthier districts like mine parents get tutors for their kids, or become de facto tutors. This is never taken into account when these districts brag about their quality and test scores. This is our 2nd year of constructivist math, 3rd grade, and its been a nightmare for certain kids (and their parents), with hours-long homework sessions resulting in still-failing grades (or non-grades, we use "indictors" here, I suspect, to cover up for this math...). The school is very willing to refer parents to tutors who charge $40/hr while pretending each kid is the "only one" struggling, but even before this every teacher who wanted to tutor gets booked all summer. I cannot tell how constructivist our math classes are in practice, but the materials for the program definitely expects it to be taught that way. And it is everywhere -"socratic circles" are in middle school social studies and english classes, in lieu of teaching, and my shy daughter can never come up with anything to say. But then our high school mathematics program mentions using Bloom's Taxonomy, which I do not fully comprehend but its supposed to encompass cognitive, affective and psychomotor areas of learning. Huh? How about just teaching math and we'll worry about the rest. Home schooling is looking better and better...

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...


If you can't homeschool, just afterschool with Singapore or Saxon or some solid curriculum a few times a week if possible. Many of us have done that and, while not perfect, it can save you a lot of grief. Don't try to match what they're doing. Find out your child's level and start from there.

Unfortunately, you'll need to do the same for writing, spelling, grammar...etc. Anything they don't believe in teaching you will have to fill in to keep the gaps from growing.

Unfortunately, you will have to advocate for your shy child right up to high school. Class participation grades and group work go on past middle school, as do all of the projects. Shy kids who don't want to constantly share their personal feelings should not be penalized, but as you know, they are.

I feel your pain. Some of us were where you are a few years ago. Just don't wait.

Good luck,

daryl-michelle said...

As I realize the extent of the problems in education across all subjects and grades, homeschooling is looking better and better! I started looking to buy Singapore math but got confused as to which version to get, but maybe its available at a homeschooling shop or used (both to teach my kid and to compar with the enVision program).

I see the math problem as twofold - its extremely difficult for certain children because of the way their brains are wired, and its also just plain bad math that will damage our future engineers and technical majors - and I don't even know how much is bad and how to correct the erroneous teaching! My optimal goal would be to force school districts to make traditional math programs available because constructivist programs discriminate against the left brain children, and they are required by law to provide a fair and appropriate education. When we pushed this point at our iEP meeting, the Director of Student Services here at glorious Pine Richland school district threatened to put our son in a much lower program that would put him behind. Following this logis, the PA state standards would also be discriminatory, and according to 3 sources I found so far, they stink anyway. I am sure every subject will eventually will be governed by such standards, and maybe are already, if the government if left unchecked. So I research in my "free" time.

Andrei Radulescu-Banu said...

On the subject of the selection bias of 'reform' curricula, also see Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System", Chap. 3, "The transformation of [New York City] District 2".

Anonymous said...


It's the Primary Mathematics series in their homeschooling section. They have workbooks and textbooks. They're pretty cheap.

Saxon is also a big homeschooling curriculum. It's good if you don't feel very strong in math. There are others, but I'm not as familiar.


LexAequitas said...

daryl-michelle is absolutely right. In fact, you can tell quite easily which parents have gotten tutors or have engaged in extensive after-schooling. They're the ones who, at the fourth-grade back-to-school night, look at the manipulatives and groan.

We're fortunate in that we knew quite early -- before kindergarten -- that we'd need to do something in math. My wife taught my oldest double-digit addition/subtraction and the times tables to 10 before first grade using Kumon books. My middle son gained these skills by the beginning of first grade (where he is now).

It certainly irritates me, though, since for poorly performing schools the teachers immediately blame the parents. It makes one wonder when a teacher would ever indicate poor performance is due to poor teaching.

Though I suspect the answer is never.