Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

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When Educational Promises Are Too Good To Be True

When Educational Promises Are Too Good To Be True

 Exaggerated Claims

We recently have received a number of calls asking about franchised, for-profit educational companies that report that students can quickly learn to become better readers and thinkers. Some even lead the potential consumer, the parents, to believe that their child will make gains of many years while working with individuals within the organization for several months. These for-profit, franchised companies use parent testimonials to lure desperate parents, relieving them of thousands of dollars in the transaction.

We are skeptical of any organization that makes claims like these. At best, such claims raise serious questions about the credibility of the organization making the claims. At worst, these promises can create more frustration and loss of self-esteem if a child does not make the gains predicted. “I am not reading any better after working so hard with these exercises. Something must really be wrong with me.” Companies that tout such success can also do a real disservice to professional organizations that are doing good work using evidenced-based strategies. As one father recently told us, “I spent $10,000 (at one of these for-profit franchises), and it didn’t work. Now I don’t know who to trust.”

False Guarantees

Another parent mentioned that a commercial, for-profit company stated that its program would “train the brain,” and the child would “get smarter,” and the program was even “guaranteed!” This parent went on to say that “…the memory issues we originally signed up for were NOT better and several of the results were LOWER than the initial test. The program proved to be more anxiety producing and frustrating for our daughter.”

The parents’ daughter completed the program and the daughter was retested and “…the memory issues we originally signed up for were NOT better and we still did not see any improvement. They said their ‘test’ showed an improvement, so they would not refund us and did not honor their guarantee. They gave us unrealistic expectations and we feel preyed on our desperation as parents searching for ways to improve the quality of our child’s life and life skills.”

Science or Pseudo Science?

 Often these franchised companies try to trick the consumer by making something extremely complicated –like brain neurology and brain function—sound incredibly simple. As one franchise quotes, “We recognize that many childhood disorders are actually manifestations of a single underlying condition.”

This might lead the consumer to believe that by “curing” this condition, a host of the child’s maladies will disappear. This flies in the face of brain research, much of it sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD), that suggests that different parts of the brain working together are responsible for complex cognitive processes and that the communication between these brain centers is often flawed. To infer that we can fix a single, underlying brain condition and that a child’s processing or learning disorders will subsequently disappear is disingenuous at best.

Franchised companies may also try to sound very scientific in their advertisements.  This can lead the unsuspecting consumer to believe in their claims.Take this quote for example:

The Brain is Changeable

“It was once thought that the brain was static, unable to grow or change. But extensive research and in depth study of epigenetics has shown that it’s remarkably adaptable, able to create new neural pathways in response to stimulus in the environment, a branch of science called neuroplasticity. Additionally, it is now understood the difficulties associated with a wide range of learning disorders and neurobehavioral disorders result primarily from environmental influences that affect genetic expression and are therefore often correctable. Because the brain can change, and because difficulties can be corrected, children suffering from Functional Disconnection can be greatly helped.”

Epigenetics?  Really?

That the brain is able to rewire itself is not new science. We have known for decades about brain plasticity, but we have to question the author’s assertion that “neurobehavioral disorders result primarily from environmental influences that affect genetic expression.” Actually, the origin of most disorders is genetic, not environmental, but the author can lure the unsuspecting consumer by using scientific jargon with no supporting documentation or research. Many desperate parents fall for programs that promote themselves using scientific jargon like this.

Read the Fine Print

 One customer of a for-profit educational company strongly recommended reading the fine print regarding any guarantee that the company might give. All the guarantee of this company means is that the student will have higher testing scores in two areas out of twelve tested. After spending $5,000 and almost 30 hours a week to complete the program, this parent’s child actually went DOWN in eight of the twelve areas tested.  The only two areas the child tested higher were areas that were above grade level when he began the program. In working with a lawyer, this parent learned that “This guarantee is like a two-headed coin. There is almost NO way it will ever work in your favor.  The owner does not have any desire to honor the guarantee. In fact, he admitted our whole experience was a ‘train wreck’ then turned around and said there was no way we qualified for the guarantee as his company met all their obligations (see the fine print). This in spite of the fact that our child did worse in 8 out of the twelve testing areas AFTER the program.”

Questions to Ask

Many programs that concentrate on improving a certain skill set—whether cognitive or academic—can show impressive short term gains on the skills that the student is practicing. This can be likened to spending three hours a day practicing dribbling a basketball. After six weeks you may be a good dribbler, but are you a good basketball player?

To judge whether a program is truly effective, we have to ask a few important questions including:

1.  Do the short-term gains in specific skills translate to long-term gains (are the gains permanent)?

We have seen students work intensely on specific drills or computer learning games, and they can sometimes make impressive gains in post therapy testing on the specific skills they were practicing. Yet these skills often diminish over time, much like children who take music lessons. Children can learn skills while they are taking lessons and practicing, but if they put the instrument down for any length of time, they begin to lose these fledgling skills.

2.  Does any short-term gain in cognitive skill development transfer to gains in reading, writing, math, or study skills?

Again, children can become very good at sorting exercises if they are given a lot of time to practice this skill, but does a sorting skill transfer to better reading, spelling, writing, or math skills? These program creators would like you to think so, but they can offer only parent testimonials to that effect.

3.  Are there independent, peer-reviewed studies showing the effectiveness of a given treatment?

Before choosing a specific program for your child—especially one that makes claims that seem too good to be true—it is important to ask for, and receive, independent, controlled research studies that examine a specific program’s efficacy. We would recommend examining peer reviewed studies that are reported in a legitimate educational or cognitive psychology journal before you sign on (and transfer money) to a for-profit franchise. Often the research these franchises tout are studies conducted by the organization itself. There is a big difference between company research and consumer testimonials and an independent, scientific study of a specific therapy’s effectiveness. We think that you will find that there is a lack of these independent research studies for many of these therapies, probably for a good reason.

We should all ask difficult questions when buying a car, purchasing a house, or determining a specific medical plan of action. We should do the same when choosing an educational therapy which promises results that seem too good to be true.

John Alexander

Head of School, Groves Academy




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Who Needs a Basic Skills Test?

Rescinding the Basics Skills Test for Teachers      

To become a licensed teacher in Minnesota, a teaching candidate must pass a Basic Skills Test in reading, writing, and math.  In its infinite wisdom, the Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force appointed by Minnesota’s Board of Teaching has recommended that the Basics Skills Test be abolished.  After all, why should adults who teach our children to read, write, and learn math be expected to have a basic proficiency in these areas?  Abolishing the Basic Skills Test sends a terrible message to the general public and ultimately devalues the profession.

In 2013, The Board of Teaching commissioned a Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force to make recommendations on requirements for: “teacher applicants to demonstrate mastery of reading, writing, and mathematics skills through nationally normed assessments, a professional skills portfolio, or accredited college coursework, among other methods of demonstrating skill mastery.” It held its first meeting on August 1, 2013.  After eight meetings, the Advisory Task Force had completed its work and voted overwhelmingly to recommend to the Board of Teaching that the Basic Skills Test be repealed.  There were 20 Advisory Task Force members representing school administrators, teachers, professors of education, the state legislature, the Board of Teaching, Education Minnesota (the state’s largest teachers’ union), Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), Minnesota School Board Association, the Nonpublic Education Council, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Chambers of Commerce.  Four Advisory Task Force Members wrote a dissenting opinion.  They included two legislators and the two representatives from the Chambers of Commerce

John Bellingham, a middle school teacher and chairman of the state Board of Teaching and Task Force member, was convinced by testimony from teacher candidates who had failed the test that the test was too difficult.  He feels that teachers who have graduated from accredited colleges and universities have competency in the subjects they teach, because they have graduated from the college or university.  He states, “These people (teachers) attended colleges with accredited teacher preparation programs.  I believe they have basic competency.  I wouldn’t want a test to hold them back.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust that a teacher having graduated from an accredited teacher preparation program has basic competency, and I certainly would want him/her to pass a test demonstrating that he/she does.  If a teacher doesn’t have to pass a basic skills test, where is the accountability?  We ask our students to pass tests and to be accountable.  Shouldn’t we hold our teachers to the same standards?

There is also a problem with Bellingham’s logic.  If licensed elementary school teachers are truly proficient in the teaching of reading, inarguably the most important skill for students from kindergarten through third grade to acquire, why are over 30% of our state’s fourth graders not reading at a basic reading level?  Why do they have such difficulty decoding the printed word from the page?  Why do over 60% of our state’s fourth graders not read proficiently, with good comprehension?  We have similar issues with math instruction and performance.   Do we really want our children’s teachers to not have basic skills in reading, writing, and math?  If they don’t have these skills, how can we expect these skills to be taught to their students?

Critics of the Basics Skills Test claim that that the test is culturally insensitive and there are no accommodations given for people with disabilities.   We don’t know that the Basic Skills Test is culturally insensitive, but, if it is, the exam provider, Pearson, has agreed to work with the Board of Teaching to review all concerns with the exams, and make changes, if necessary—free of charge!  Representatives of Pearson had already met with the Advisory Task Force to discuss the creation of the exams, and they also answered questions about perceived cultural insensitivity.  Accommodations for people with disabilities are also acceptable practices.  Our students receive accommodations, and teacher candidates should as well.

As part of their dissenting opinion, the dissenter’s group stated, “The task force’s recommendation to eliminate Basic Skills Exams is an over-reaction, and is out-of-step with efforts by other states and organizations to raise expectations for educators.  Having a nationally-recognized, third-party exam of new teacher competency in the basic skills is important—not just as a safeguard for students, but as a part of an overall strategy to elevate the teaching profession.”

They went on to write, “With respect to the task force’s second recommendation that the Board of Teaching develop requirements for teacher preparation programs to provide assurances that candidates are ‘proficient in reading, writing and math at a college level,” we feel that the greater emphasis on strengthening teacher preparation is critical, however, providing assurances is a far cry from requiring proficiency.”

This debate is all about accountability.  People in higher education and our teachers’ unions do not like to be held accountable.  The Basic Skills Exam holds higher education and teachers’ unions accountable, making them very uncomfortable.   These professionals complain that education isn’t a valued profession, but they themselves are devaluing the profession by watering down its standards.

We require physicians, surgeons, and attorneys to pass skills and knowledge tests to become members of their respective professions.  Should we not require the same of our children’s teachers?

John Alexander

Head of School, Groves Academy