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On Deer Whistles and Direct Instruction

Publication Date: 2009-11-05

This article is from Substance, January 2005.

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Maybe it's because I live in Vermont and know first hand what it?s like to take out a deer while it takes out the radiator, but I found myself fascinated by an NPR segment on January 11, 2005, regarding whether deer whistles actually help prevent accidents.

National Public Radio reporter Chris Arnold described what happens:

"[Y]ou put this little whistle on the outside of your car and when you drive, the wind blows through it making the sound. That supposedly wards off deer, but since the odds are that you're probably not going to hit one anyway, it's kind of tough to tell if it's working. Still, a lot of people swear by their deer whistles."

A couple of rustics expressed their enthusiasm for the deer whistle, offering the evidence that since they hadn't hit a deer, clearly those little plastic whistles on the front of their cars must work. But then we heard a different view. Skeptics noted that the high-pitched sound made by the whistle is very similar to the sound cars make.

Next came the science: Tim Lawhern is a hunter education administrator for the state of Wisconsin. While working on a degree in wildlife ecology, Lawhern did a small study on deer whistles. He approached various species of deer and elk at a deer farm and blew three different kinds of deer whistles at them to gauge their response. He described their responses as follows: None, zero, zip, nada, zilch.

You have to love an administrator who can summarize his scientific results as None, zero, zip, nada, zilch.

The chief scientist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also insisted that there's no evidence that deer whistles work. Nonetheless, NPR reports that State Farm Insurance agents hand out thousands of deer whistles to car owners and some police departments and major delivery companies also use them.

And in rural Hudson Falls, New York, truck driver Blade Howard says he's got all the proof he needs that his deer whistle works. "I've never hit a deer and I've seen them and I know it catches their attention . . . ."

NPR's Arnold notes that "Howard says the question comes down to who are you going to trust, some scientists who did a couple of small studies or people in rural areas like him who drive around deer, hunt deer, and know deer? And without more research, his opinion just might be as good as anyone else's."

Indeed! Teachers should take this as a lesson: Who are we going to trust about reading methodology? The work of members of the Reading First panel of experts who pass out edicts on what reading materials can be used in Title 1 classrooms includes these small studies:

  • Study of the brain of dead dyslexics
  • Comparison of Chinese and English word identification processes
  • Use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the influence of sex hormones on cognitive development during puberty.

  • Members of the Reading First panel of experts don't hang around with children, don't listen to children or know the literature they love.

    NPR is comfortable with the wisdom of truck drivers standing up against "small studies" provided by science. It is time for teachers to behave like truck drivers and stand against the Reading First mandates for scripted reading. It is time for NPR and the rest of the media stop calling the studies underlying Reading First mandates "scientific." Call them what they are: small.

    As Doctor Spock advised parents, "You know more than you think you do." We teachers need to remind ourselves that the science refuting what we know in our bones consists of very small studies on the brains of cadavers.

    Beware of the Progressive Stalking Your School

    Too many people who should know better figure if the conservative think tanks offer damaging policy about public schools, then those think tanks labeled liberal must offer good policy. These days, when you look at policy briefs, it is very difficult to tell a neo-con from a neo-liberal. Take a look at The Progressive Priorities Series: Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force issued by the Center for American Progress. These fellows call themselves progressives, but you will have a hard time figuring out just how their recommendations differ from rhetoric spewing forth from Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

    The Progressive Priorities Series: Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force is available at


    Below are a few excerpts from the 24-page report. As you read the excerpts consider the way they are stuffed with bloated and deceptive rhetoric, words that hide more than they reveal. Funny thing, these are the same overstuffed words used by think tanks labeled conservative.

    Here they are in their own words.
    Excerpts from The Progressive Priorities Series: Ensuring a High-Quality Education for Every Child by Building a Stronger Teaching Force

  • American Progress supports a federal education agenda that builds the capacity of public education to teach all students to higher levels and graduate more of them ready for success in postsecondary education. Investing in our teacher workforce will be a critical component in building that capacity. . . .
  • The highest caliber and most desirable candidates should be vigorously recruited and effectively trained. Once they are on the job, teachers? skills should be more systematically developed through staged career pathways, with more opportunities to be trained in clinical settings, greater support and better evaluation during a residency period, greater choices to advance along a meaningful career ladder as they become more expert over time, and with better pay through competitive compensation structures for all teachers that recognize and reward different roles, responsibilities, knowledge, skills, and, most importantly, positive results. . . .
  • Fortunately, the time is ripe for federal education policy to focus intensively on building the teaching profession. Strong, private efforts have coalesced around this issue,
    resulting in bipartisan agreement around key principles. Federal policy already supplies a
    foothold for efforts to build teacher quality. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires that states work to ensure that all teachers are highly qualified by 2005-2006. . . .
  • [A] new consensus about the importance of teachers has emerged among researchers and policymakers, based on results of groundbreaking research released over the past decade. Using finer-grained information based on annual growth in individual students? test scores, such research has demonstrated that school factors play a decisive role in how much students learn. The factor that matters most is teacher quality. . . .
  • Federal education policy must make a focused commitment to building a highly qualified, adequately supported, and more professionalized teacher workforce for America's schools. The long-range goal should be to maximize the return on the nation's investment in teachers by systematically and consistently promoting practices that treat teaching as a true ?clinical practice profession? much like medicine. . . .
  • We consistently fail to attract and retain the brightest candidates at every point in the professional pipeline to teaching. . . .
  • Using Data for Better Decisionmaking We must work to increase the amount, meaningfulness, and quality of information
    about America?s teacher workforce, and encourage the use of such data for greater accountability and smarter decisionmaking. The federal government should demand better information about America?s teachers, and provide enough support to enable school systems to provide it. Improved data with respect to teacher credentials and performance can be used to improve instruction and help rectify inequities in student opportunities for learning.

    To offer some examples: in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the district uses value-added data to identify highly effective teachers and then provides them with incentives to teach in the highest need schools. This type of data analysis can also be used to identify a teacher's weaknesses so professional development can be provided in those areas. Conversely, a teacher's strengths can be identified (e.g., data may demonstrate that a particular teacher is exceptionally good at teaching fractions) and that teacher can be used as a resource for teachers needing coaching in those areas. . . .
  • The federal government should support the development of enriched career advancement structures that treat teaching as a clinical practice profession like medicine. . . .
  • The Congress should propose amending the Higher Education Act to strengthen accountability for teacher preparation programs--both traditional and alternative route--by requiring such accountability systems to incorporate: (1) quantitative outcomes-based data, including the passing rates of program completers on state certification exams, such as are currently required to be reported under section 207; (2) progress on teacher production goals, including the overall number of program completers, completers in shortage areas within the state or region, completers who take jobs in hard-to-staff schools, and the number of minority and/or second-language completers; and (3) information on the actual effectiveness of graduates in improving the achievement of students after they begin teaching. The Higher Education Act should also require teacher preparation programs to demonstrate that they incorporate courses and measures for assessing competence in key areas, including using assessments and student achievement data and technology to inform and enhance instruction, effective classroom management, and instructional techniques focused on addressing special needs and diverse groups of students. . . .
  • The president should ensure that funds are going to support efforts to take on the politically more challenging task of raising standards for entry to the profession. For example, funds under section 202 of the Higher Education Act should be directed toward states seeking to raise teaching licensing standards and improving licensing tests.32 In addition, the president should seek to reserve $10 million in funding under Title II of the Higher Education Act for an independent body--such as the National Academy of Sciences--to develop national standards for teacher quality with respect to content and pedagogy. . . .
  • The Congress also should create a $100 million fund to support development of instructional tools, including a uniform curriculum and standardized assessments that teachers can use to inform their instruction. States or consortia of districts and regional education agencies would be eligible. Research shows that urban districts making the greatest gains in student achievement provide a uniform curriculum or learning benchmarks aligned with state standards and tests, aligned model lessons, aligned benchmark assessments teachers or schools may administer at regular intervals, and prompt data on student performance under those diagnostic assessments. . . .

  • =========================================================
    Oh my, where do we begin with such bloviating? First, let's look at a few words they use.

  • progressives
  • economic expansion
  • all students
  • higher levels
  • most desirable candidates
  • effectively trained
  • skills. . . systematically developed
  • staged career pathways
  • clinical settings
  • meaningful career ladder
  • competitive compensation structures
  • reward. . .positive results
  • groundbreaking research
  • finer-grained information
  • bully pulpit
  • better information
  • improved data
  • highly effective
  • teacher's strengths
  • enriched career advancement structures
  • clinical practice profession
  • national standards for teacher quality with respect to content and pedagogy
  • uniform curriculum

  • The corporate push for data worship in the schools began in the late 1980ies and within the last few years Progressives are repeating the mantra. Here they announce that such data collection may demonstrate that a particular teacher is exceptionally good at teaching, say, fractions. The data will allow schools to make her a fraction coach, and then all kids will learn fractions. The policy writers stop short of creating competition for a Fraction Teacher of the Decade. And so far they haven?t lobbied for apostrophe queens.

    I'm not disparaging the importance of fractions, but the progressives? total worship of data derived from standardized test results is chilling. These were supposed to be the good guys. Why did they throw away their white hats and climb on the corporate bandwagon?

    And it gets worse. The Progressives want career ladders (based on student test scores) because, they say, "experienced teachers need incentives to remain" and "compensation systems that recognize the value of teachers coupled with career advancement systems that more effectively reward good performance'based on results'and respond to poor performance will make larger investments in teacher salaries more politically viable and maximize the returns on such investments." Standardized test scores to measure the value of teachers.

    Think about what is being valued here. Such a scheme will destroy the profession, turning it into one more competitive scrambling for another dollar. The report excerpted below has to make you wonder that if we lament the way standardized tests rule classrooms today, what will happen if the progressives get power?

    The Change-Up

    As a antidote to such a distressing report, daring to travel under the name progressive, I offer a baseball metaphor. Although I find National Public Radio's education coverage distressing, we can take a lesson from a baseball metaphor. Former Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu traveled the country looking for life lessons from 15 mentors-- race-car drivers, Indian potters, ballet dancers, rappers, research scientists, law professors, Montessori teachers, aerobatic pilots, master carpenters, and many others. Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life (Random House 2004) is the result.

    From pitching coach Bryan Price of the Seattle Mariners, Liu learns that "a teacher of pitching is ever operating on two levels, a surface curriculum about how to pitch and a curriculum beneath about how to be.? Liu concludes that "Failure, in many ways, is the default setting in baseball. A pitcher can be on a roll and cruising through a game, but he is always just one bad pitch, or one fielding mistake, away from a meltdown. The thing Bryan Price teaches is not how to win all the time. What he teaches is how to right yourself when you falter or fail."

    Isn't this a large part of teaching? We need to stop listening to the rhetoric about winning all the time. We need this message: How to right yourself when you falter or fail.

    Price chose to teach Liu the change-up, and though there were a myriad of skills that Liu didn?t know, Price settled on just one: "Keep your head quiet," he said.

    This meant making sure I held my head steady and square as I pitched, so my eyes would remain fixed on the target. It also meant not overloading my brain with anxiety and data. A quiet head in the psychological sense is hard to achieve. Bryan got me there by emphasizing a quiet head in the physical sense. By worrying only about keeping my gaze steady and my skull centered, I stopped overthinking.

    A quiet head. With the data processors working overtime on the standardized test outputs, and the data warehouses piling up facts faster than rabbit poop, all the Standardistas are overthinking; teachers need to stop listening. They need to gaze steady and keep their skulls centered.

    Once this skill is learned, then teachers should get mad as hell and start resisting.

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