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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Has constructivism increased special-education enrollment in public schools?

By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

As a teacher and administrator for 28 years, I rebelled against the disastrous fad of constructivism that began in the 1980’s. While its drumbeaters declared it was a higher form of intellectualism, it didn’t seem all that “intelligent” to me. Frankly, I thought it would help create failures among all groups of students—regular, special, and gifted.

For those who don’t know what “constructivism” is, it is an educational theory that, in practice, looks like this in America’s classrooms:
  • It is students from kindergarten through high school “discovering” their own answers by using manipulatives, working in groups, contriving “real world” problems through “project-based’ activities, moving and talking –a lot, and surviving in a hierarchy of those students who can lead and those who must follow according to their skills.
  • It is lots of colorful, jazzy pictures in books and on classroom walls that show many different ethnic groups, women, with gender-neutral stories, and with child-directed activities that only require teacher “facilitation.” Children rule the day.
  • It is feminized instruction that supports the goal of public education to provide egalitarianism or equity, especially to girls and minorities. That’s the priority placed over building excellence, since excellence smacks of cognitive exceptionalism. That ability is not appreciated nor encouraged where equity is to be the norm in classrooms.
  • It ridicules practice and repetition as “drill and kill” and believes anything that requires memorization is a waste of time that should be used for “creative” thinking.
  • It focuses on process, not results. “Process” is the actual “product” of learning.
  • It believes that if students are having fun, according to perceived “learning styles,” they will like going to school and they will learn the academics they need to prepare for the world of work.
No one will ever be able to determine how many hundreds of thousands of children, who came from dysfunctional, even chaotic, home environments and who entered the constructivist classroom with its lack of boundaries, no right or wrong answers, and the expectation to “discover” their own answers, were shuffled from the “feel-good, tolerant, and fun system” into special education programs. For some strange reason, these kids were declared “discipline” problems. Perhaps if they had been given structure and safety based on routines that established boundaries, along with consistency from adult leaders who taught them about individual responsibility, they would have learned the hidden “rules” of school. What they also deserved was the power that comes from learning proven strategies, true results every time, and a respect for the academic giants who came before them and developed universal lessons from diverse cultures.

Although I had taught journalism, English and art for several years in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I returned to education in the 1980’s as a special education teacher after working 17 years in journalistic fields. I came to realize that half of my students should not have been placed in that program. Those students were there because of cultural deprivation and poor curricula, not because of organically-caused learning disabilities. Then through the 1990’s and until my retirement in 2006, I taught regular (traditional) math in grades six through twelve in mostly high-risk schools, was a middle school and high school counselor, and a K-12 principal in two very different school districts: One was an Indian reservation and the other in Seattle with a predominantly white, upper-middle-class population. No matter what the environment, however, I learned that my special education training was invaluable with all groups of learners.

For example, many exhibited, even if not diagnosed, the characteristics of ADHD, dyslexia, and SLD (specific learning disabilities). My under-performing gifted kids were in a separate category, although some states do put them under “special education.”


This condition is apparent from birth and must be seen in at least two different environments, not suddenly after one month in kindergarten or shifts to the new puberty-driven warehouse of education called “middle school.” (A sixth-grade teacher once asked me, “When do we get to call it just ‘bad behavior’?”)

Nonetheless, for those who were diagnosed with ADHD, and those who weren’t but who were as inattentive and wiggly, I used the same techniques:
  • Act, don’t yak. The more you talk to an ADHD student, the more he gets lost. That includes working in group projects.
  • Assign them to men teachers, if possible, because men are usually more goal-driven and less talkative. ADHD students want to know the bottom line.
  • If you want to change behavior, change the academics. Make lessons and teaching structured, short, and frequently rewarded. (Even one sticker works.)
  • Keep wall decorations to a minimum. One big, interesting poster is great for discussion and focus. Forget all the ceiling mobiles, color-drenched walls, etc.
  • Give students permission to move their bodies, whether to lie on the floor, sit on a rotating stool, or stand at a bookcase as they write. The more they are in movement with others, however, they can become agitated as they “lose” their direction and perspective on what’s happening.
  • In essence, be clear, direct, and honest (no phony praise). They’ll love you for it.

While there are no studies to prove it, many of us in education believe the “whole language” fad of the 1980’s helped exacerbate a learning condition called dyslexia. This is an organic auditory problem where a child cannot hear the correct sounds of letters. Phonemic and spelling books were closeted during the 1980’s because they were considered too mechanical and boring in their purpose. Instead, children were to be exposed to great literature and discuss their own “personal” stories. (This made learning more “relevant” to them.) Somehow, they would absorb the rules of grammar and spelling. Instead, we produced a generation who could not spell, write simple sentences and read. It was like teaching children to play the piano by ear rather than by learning the sounds of the notes and requiring practice to master those sounds. Since students weren’t taught phonics from a good phonemic awareness curriculum, they couldn’t read. They were then labeled “dyslexic” and shuffled to remediation/special education programs.

Most dyslexics, like ADHD students, reveal a high intelligence once they get past their processing “disability.” Interestingly, constructivists claim to focus on “processing.” Yet they have disdain for concrete, precise, and universal strategies that help correct episodic processing deficiencies.

Specific Learning Disabilities

When special education students are included in regular classrooms, they need structure, consistent rules and expectations, a sense of safety given by regular routines, and teacher-directed learning. This is not the atmosphere found in constructivist classrooms. Of course, the dynamics of a carefully selected, mixed-ability classroom can indeed work with an organized and talented teacher. There are such teachers out there for mixed classrooms. Mostly, there are not because there are few “carefully mixed” classes.

Special Note: The move in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) to bring equity to girls and minorities in math classrooms meant a giant move toward feminization of mathematics instruction. This would be a major blow to boys since the majority of special education placement was already for male students, particularly those with ADHD diagnoses. The NCTM president in 1996 explained in a radio interview that girls and minorities couldn’t learn math like “white males.” The 2,000-year-old discipline of mathematics, created by diverse cultures around the world, was now pronounced as destructive to girls and minorities. Its “traditional” approach of linear thinking, practice, and memorization of multiplication tables, was only learnable by white boys (and Asians).

This meant new materials and methods would avoid any “traditional” teaching methods. Basic skills that required memorization (which helps build memory capacity) were also seen as unnecessary because students could use calculators and computers for short-term expediency. The result has been a hatred for math among all “sub-groups” of students, a $4 billion private tutoring industry mostly for math, and an unyielding failure rate of American students entering advanced math and science studies.

Under-Performing Gifted Students

The push for egalitarianism was also designed to ignore exceptional, or gifted, students. The all-inclusive classroom where special ed students were blended with regular and gifted students produced another fad called “differentiated learning.” This is a teacher’s nightmare to plan. It is, therefore, usually an unproductive environment for most students.

In the inclusive classroom, a teacher ends up focusing on the neediest children because that is the goal for egalitarians. The regular and gifted students are considered able to fend for themselves. They aren’t. They lose academic opportunities and growth. And they lose their patience, as most humans do when their needs are continually dismissed or openly ignored. A gifted student will shut down as much as any special ed student because he hasn’t learned basic and general strategies on how to approach a solution. Neither one wants to look dumb. “Better to be thought that way than prove it,” they say.

One of the saddest stories I heard was from Dr. Ruby Payne, who conducts professional development training for teachers who work with students and adults from poverty. She explained that third-grade African American boys who showed signs of giftedness were often labeled “emotionally disturbed” and placed in special education. (ADHD children’s symptoms also mirror those of gifted children.) Part of that problem resulted from not knowing how to measure giftedness outside of scores on math and reading tests. Another part was in seeing giftedness as exceptionalism and that was to be downplayed. These children then became under-performing or major disciplinary problems as their own needs, often ones that saw them wanting to work alone, weren’t met in the highly interactive, noisy, motion-filled classrooms designed, teachers thought, to meet lower-performing students’ needs (girls and minorities, except Asians).


For almost three decades, I personally saw that when children were given explicit, step-driven instruction with consistent consequences of positive results, along with direct teacher support, they learned their required academics no matter what their gender, race, economic status, or intelligence level. This methodology has now been proven according to an article published this month in the American Federation of Teachers’ magazine, American Educator ( ).

I therefore believe the radical and destructive implementation of constructivist ideology in education has increased the numbers of students in public schools being labeled “special education” or in the development of characteristics of special needs students.

It is unlikely that anyone can ever tally the unbelievable human and financial costs of education fads in America, with constructivism being the Big Daddy of them all. Education decision-makers grabbed onto unproven and unproductive methods with which they trained and evaluated teachers. Government entities like the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education pumped almost $100 million into the new, unproven curricula and training materials in the 1990’s alone. Private businesses and more non-state government groups are now getting into the picture. Billions of dollars are at stake today, yet no one acknowledges the importance of weak and incoherent curricula on teacher training. Meanwhile, the same members of the leadership circle that have brought American students to their knees are still in charge. The question is “Why?”

Since removal of those leaders seems impossible, local districts can at least offer parents a choice within each school: Do they want their child to follow traditional, explicit curricula or that of the constructivist/reform model? Just once, it would be great to hear an honest answer as to why this can’t be done. And it’s not about money.

Nakonia (Niki) Hayes is the author of "John Saxon's Story: A genius of common sense in math education." She is certified and experienced in journalism, counseling, special education, mathematics, and administration during 28 years in public education. She worked in various journalism fields for 17 years, including with two state senators and a U.S. congressman. She also published historical and contemporary articles on American Indians and Micronesia (with the U.S. Department of Interior) during that period. She is director of K-8 Emmanuel Academy for tutoring of reading, writing, and math in Waco, TX, and she tutors in Saxon Math at a local Catholic elementary school. She has a Web site at this address. Email Niki at

This article was previously published on Education Views at: It was republished here with permission of the author. 

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.


Katharine Beals said...

I've wondered how much Constructivism has contributed to the epidemic of autism diagnoses. I'm thinking, specifically, of the requirement that students spend much of the school day sitting and working in mixed-ability groups, and of tendencies of teachers to rate them on how well they cooperate. The bright, independent, introverted learner, once a model student, may now get red flagged as being socially aloof and uncooperative.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry, but this seems terribly misguided. Constructivism, the theory, is not inherently evil as it is made out to be here. Honoring different learning styles, respecting students for having different strengths, and reducing the harsh competitive atmosphere is not the reason children are being labeled "special ed." It's because children are treated like second class citizens, made to sit in desks for hours on end when they should be moving, are all expected to fit into one specific mold and learn things in the same memorizing fashion, and then get labeled if they can't comply. If the goal is to have every child come out of the school factory able to regurgitate all facts properly and be proud of it, then absolutely condemn the ideas behind constructivism. However, if we want children who can think for themselves then let's be a little more open minded!

Niki Hayes said...

Sad to say, the comment from Unknown is something right out of constructivist training programs. It's the propaganda that is repeated over and over that becomes a mantra in the teacher corps. (Yes, I did participate in such training.) It does not admit to the RESULTS of a disastrous ideology for at least two generations of children. It loves to focus on the PROCESS of making children feel good, though, as if that is more important than helping them develop honest self-esteem when they reach a hard-achieved goal.

Tell me, how in the world did my grandparents' generation win a world war and free millions of people and implement the technology age? How did their grandparents' generation industrialize this nation, build the Panama Canal and unbelievable dams, and turn us into the most prosperous country on earth? How was a black man able to lay out the city of Washington, D.C., and another black man invent the cotton gin? How did the Romans and Europeans build bridges, roads, and cathedrals? How did the Pythagoreans formalize the discipline of mathematics 2500 years ago with the Arabs later adding algebra to it?

The audacious arrogance to think that no one "learned" under traditional methods and before the "discovery" of constructivism as proposed by Vygotsky, but warped by American educators, is so ridiculous that it can no longer be tolerated.

Put those teacher trainers back in the "regular" urban classrooms with inclusion of special needs, ESL, and gifted children, and hold them accountable for the learning among all those students with their different "learning styles." See how many of those teacher trainers will remain on duty.

However, when those who have taught in high-risk or inner city elementary schools that use constructivist methods, whose students receive NO tutoring in basic skills, who then (a majority of their classes) succeed in advanced math and science classes in high school and college so they own the power to determine which careers/jobs they want, I will listen to constructivist teachers tell me their ideology works.

There are no data to support that claim after more than two decades of constructivism in America's schools. It is for that reason that I feel secure in my negative conclusions about the impact of constructivism on our children, especially our most vulnerable.

I do see it as a malevolent methodology, based on its pattern of failure and its part in helping drown millions of American children in a sea of unproven and unproductive programs.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Nice job, Niki.

I keep hearing about issues with cutting, feelings of despair, eating disorders, even suicide. I also hear from the students many negative impressions of the constant group work, building for consensus, being responsible for classmates’ learning and behavior, having to discover their own procedures, and not being able to go to teachers for direct explanations.

It's a lot for children to shoulder. And then, there is the nearly incomprehensible curricula and all of the testing, which so many children fail and never understand why.

I know that most children are concrete thinkers who appreciate linear connections, explanations, and direction. They want success, and they need to feel successful if they are not to lose heart. In the 2009 math adoption committee I was on, the students practically begged for structure and explanations, which certain administrative types shrugged off as the kids wanting everything handed to them.

I wonder if the way our schools approach academics is having a serious effect on the children's emotional well-being.

I was interested by the "Race to Nowhere" documentary that concludes that the schools' over-emphasis on achievement is stressing the children. I see that stress too, but I suspect it's caused in part by public schools making everything so complicated.

There are studies out there about the effect on emotional well-being when a situation is persistently impossible. I think I'll go find them. At the moment, it's a theory. I'm interested in any studies, thoughts, or commentary about this.

Breann said...

Thank you for this article, Niki. As the parent of both gifted and ADHD kids, it was almost a relief to have my own thoughts reaffirmed in such an articulate way.

@Unknown, as I was reading your post, I was thinking exactly what Niki said: That your statements sounded like you'd recently been immersed in constructivist teacher training. You said...

"Honoring different learning styles..." But different learning styles are not honored in the constructivist classroom. Children are told they must use discovery methods, despite their proficiency in finding correct answers using traditional methods.

"...respecting students for having different strengths..." But strong students are not respected. They're used as teachers when they should be enabled to move forward at their own level.

"...the reason children are being labeled "special ed" [is] because children are treated like second class citizens, made to sit in desks for hours on end when they should be moving, are all expected to fit into one specific mold and learn things in the same memorizing fashion, and then get labeled if they can't comply." But that's not the case, either. Elementary school children are on the floor, on a sofa, at a table, outside, etc. throughout the classroom hours. Middle and high schoolers play with manipulatives and toss balls in math class. While they are largely expected to fit into the same box, it's certainly not in a memorizing fashion of any sort. Memorization has been ousted in favor of using calculators, and, well, not retaining information.

"However, if we want children who can think for themselves then let's be a little more open minded!" But the end result of constructivist methods is children who absolutely cannot think for themselves. They've learned so heavily in groups where the thinking is not their own, but reliant on others, that their first recourse in problem solving is not to be independently thoughtful and resourceful, but to ask someone else. Their first instinct is not to analyze information and produce their own results, but to look to others in search of the consensus they've been so well trained to seek, and need, in order to have the correct answer.

The US has been "open minded" long enough, working now on creating the second constructivist generation. How much lower do we need to fall before YOU open your mind and question the establishment that's gotten us here?

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to learn of the large number of students in my daughter's school with IEPs. From speaking with their parents, it seems as if this is the only way to ensure that they obtain the repetition, direct teacher instruction (as opposed to group learning) and longer amount of time per instructional topic that they need. While there are many such children, the number of others who must endure the confusion and frustration brought on by constructivist methods is much higher. They would certainly benefit from the measures in place for those with an IEP service category but cannot do so because the educational establishment has deemed them unnecessary and unfitting for "typical" students.

Anonymous said...

Teens, by the very nature of the state of their development, have not acquired the coping mechanisms that most adults have. Repeated public exposure of their perceived lack of acumen in a given area (reading, math, social skills) engenders embarrassment in them.

Constructivism, unfortunately, relies on the group effort approach to discovering material. Consequently – children are always “on display”, exposed, to their peers.

When that exposure starts young (8-10 years of age) and continues with no respite for years the outcome is predictable – an internalized perception of a lack of ability.

This internalization leads to avoidance behaviors, often behaviors that seek avoidance via transference. By transferring the attention to some other trait or action, the child avoids attention to their perceived inadequacy. Acting up, being the class clown, aggressive behaviors, or feeling sick, or forgetting their homework or posturing as lacking in motivation – all are options for the child who desires to avoid having a skill be publicly examined.

We see this behavior often when a child is abused or neglected. For most of these children their behavior becomes the focus – and various interventions are targeted to the behavior – not the underlying issue.

The point of this short reply is two-fold:

1. A child’s decision to drop-out of school, when faced with continued public humiliation in group settings with his peers due to a real or perceived lack of a skill is a normal and predictable outcome of their circumstances.

2. Within the fields of clinical psychology, developmental psychology, adolescent psychology, and neurobiology there is a general disdain for the tenuous hypotheses and supposed “scholarly” work of those in the education field with respect to how children should be educated.

Much of the theoretical work in this area makes huge leaps from teasingly difficult-to-prove experimental work on how the brain stores data.
These huge leaps from “How the Brain Stores Data” (a science that is incomplete and ever evolving) to “How the Brain Learns” (several disparate unproven hypotheses) to “How to Educate Children” (guesses by undereducated non-scientists dressed up and labeled “pedagogy”) are used to justify “reforming” the education process of children.

What has happened in American education, as fad-after-fad of “educational theory” has been trotted out to an unsuspecting public, is tragic. It is EXPERIMENTATION on the nation’s children, without the oversight or limits imposed on other human subjects trials of experimental therapies.

The purveyors of this pseudo-science have created a large industry immune to liability in claims of tort, financially supported by a public unaware of the industry’s lack of true scientific pedigree, shielded from scrutiny by both tradition and law, and busy experimenting on children without the informed consent of their parents and guardians.

The “Discovery” model of education, or “Constructivism” as it is pseudo-scientifically spun, flies in the face of most generally accepted clinical psychology practice. Children are inherently seekers of concrete answers. They prefer black-and-white answers and solutions to both academic issues and personal ones. As they become older they “mature” by using the concrete knowledge they have acquired to branch out into the areas of gray:

“My family loves me, I can depend on that, I KNOW that I can fall back on that – so I will risk emotionally in chancing a relationship.”

“I KNOW arithmetic cold, I can do that work in my sleep – so I will risk emotionally by learning algebra.”

Because, of course, there is emotional risk in trying anything new. To compound that risk in the highly charged world of a child or adolescent – in a group setting – is to set that child up for failure.

Catherine Johnson said...

My nephew, a business major in an IL state university, tells me that pretty much all of his assignments are group projects. This is justified on grounds that all work in the business world is group work.

He had the usual complaints about group work: free riders, people dropping out & leaving the group shorthanded, people never managing to form a group in the first place, etc.

Funny thing: next year the school will require students to take an entire course devoted to the subject of HOW to do group projects.

My nephew thought that was ridiculous. They do nothing but group projects for 4 years, and now everyone will have to take (and pay for) an extra course that's ONLY about how to do group projects?

Brian said...

This post displays an astonishing lack of understanding of what constructivism is and implies. You blithely dismiss concepts you have grossly mischaracterized with excessive quotation marks while throwing forward unsubstantiated claims of your own. There may be educators who subscribe to constructivism who have done some of the damage you claim, but to attribute wholesale systemic failure to constructivist theory is akin to blaming a loss on a sports teams' uniform color. The logic simply does not compute and you obfuscate serious discussion by introducing spurious correlations. It is difficult for me to understand how anyone could read Piaget, von Glasersfeld, or Steffe carefully and come away with a view of constructivism so distorted as presented here.

Robin B said...

This commentary is full of generalization and false accusation and shows a naive and misguided interpretation of constructivist educational theory and practice. If the author had truly done her homework she would be citing research to support her outrageous claim that constructivist classrooms have led to the rise in autism diagnoses. I would like to invite the author to my constructivist art program where children, even the ones with autism, are engaged in learning and creating. Constructism, I am happy to report, is alive and well in some of the best classrooms and schools in our world.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Robin B:

Art and mathematics are not the same kind of subject, and the desired outcomes are not the same. You are looking at apples and oranges and declaring them to be the same kind of fruit.

I'm all for teaching art through constructivism. I am not for teaching math through constructivism.

If you understood math and what the end result is supposed to be, you would see this clearly.

Niki Hayes said...

“If the author had truly done her homework she would be citing research to support her outrageous claim that constructivist classrooms have led to the rise in autism diagnoses.”

I never mentioned autism. That means I made no “outrageous claim.” Please buy my book, John Saxon’s Story, and read the 39 sources I cite regarding the impact of instructional methodologies in the epilogue under “Research, an arena of proof.”

“This commentary is full of generalization and false accusation and shows a naive and misguided interpretation of constructivist educational theory and practice.”

Besides my experiential learning in the field, a hallmark of John Dewey’s theories, my most important teacher was Dr. Reuven Feuerstein in Jerusalem. He is a cognitive psychologist who received his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris, studied with Piaget, and is an expert on Vygotsky. He believes in constructivism, just not the Americanized version.

“I would like to invite the author to my constructivist art program where children, even the ones with autism, are engaged in learning and creating.”

Again, I never mentioned autism.) Constructivism can fit beautifully in the arts because their goal has always been to be “constructive” through creative productions. Some subjects such as math, science and English, however, need focus, clarity, and accuracy in foundational lessons. Respected creativity comes from a well-prepared mind. I did cite the American Educator Magazine of the American Federation of Teachers as a source for such confirmation.

“Constructism [sic], I am happy to report, is alive and well in some of the best classrooms and schools in our world.”

When so many children aren’t being unfairly classified as “special needs,” I’ll be a happy teacher. When our American students are not so far behind in math and science and are knowledgeable about geography and history, I’ll be a happy teacher.

In the meantime, now with 55 years of work and training experience mostly as a teacher and tutor, I stand by what I said in the article.

Brian Gleason said...

I have no experience nor knowledge of art classrooms, but I can speak to mathematics classrooms. The great majority of research in mathematics education over the last several decades strongly supports constructivism (well-done) in mathematics classrooms.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Brian Gleason:

I'm aware that the "vast majority" of education research supports constructivism. That speaks more to the questionable quality of education "research" than it does to constructivism being the better way to teach mathematics.

Please provide quality research -- peer reviewed, scientifically conducted and replicated -- that "strongly supports constructivism" as being the better way to teach mathematics to K-12 students.

I'll be right here, waiting. If you find it, I assure you that I'll be happy to acknowledge it.

Brian said...

You may look in any of the recent issues of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, the Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, Educational Studies in Mathematics, and others. These journals contain peer reviewed studies of mathematics education and are highly regarded in the field. Finding the research is not difficult.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Brian:

That, too, is the constant refrain from people who love reform methods.

Whenever reformers are asked for the peer-reviewed, scientifically conducted and replicated research that supports the use of constructivism as the better way to teach mathematics to K-12 children -- they always tell us to go find it ourselves. They assure us it's there, yet they never provide it.

I think the onus is on you -- who claims that kind of research is easily available -- to provide it to the rest of us. If it truly isn't difficult to find, it should take you no time at all.

Brian said...

I gave you specific journals to look at. What more do you want? URLS to their websites? I could give you some specific studies by citation, but my argument was that the bulk of the research supports constructivist pedagogy, so it's more appropriate to point to the bulk of the research. Yes, the onus is on me and everyone else who studies mathematics education seriously, and we have and do read, critique, and perform the research and it strongly supports constructivist practices. If you'd like a more specific starting place, you might look at articles by Jo Boaler of Stanford University, or Deborah Ball of the University of Michigan, or Paul Cobb of Vanderbilt, or Les Steffe of the University of Georgia, or Randolph Phillip of San Diego State University, or Alan Schoenfeld of UC Berkeley, and there are many others. These researchers in the field take their studies very seriously - to dismiss it out of hand as you have done is disrespectful and makes a poor argument.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Brian, it isn't my failure that you have not provided what you said is "not difficult to find," i.e. research that is
a) peer-reviewed
b) scientifically conducted
c) replicated
and that "strongly supports" the use of reform math and constructivism as the better way to teach K-12 mathematics.

You said it's there; I asked you for it; you told me to go get it; I declined and said you should collect it; and now you've called me disrespectful.

I note that you have now slipped into another mode used habitually by reformers: Ad hominem attacks.

I'm not being disrespectful, nor am I making a poor argument.

It is you, Brian, who has made a poor argument, by making claims and failing to back them up.

If the research is there to support what you said, let's have it. I'm a big girl. I can take being wrong, if I'm wrong.

Surely you can do better than flinging out names. Have you checked to see if these people actually produced research that is
a) peer-reviewed,
b) scientifically conducted,
c) replicated,
and that supports constructivism as the better approach? I suspect that some you mentioned do not ultimately strengthen your case.

Yes, links would be lovely, thank you.

While you're collecting this research that is "not difficult to find," perhaps you also could explain why 30 years of reform math and excessive constructivism in American schools have produced an essentially math-illiterate population, all across this country.

(But I hope you won't do something else many reformers do, which is to claim that it wasn't done properly, there wasn't enough money, the teachers didn't get it, parents wouldn't support it, there is too much poverty, kids today aren't motivated, society is wallowing in inequity ... etc.)

Brian said...

As a point of clarification, I referred to your actions as disrespectful, not yourself. That does not meet the criteria of an ad hominem attack.
More pertinently, yes, I have looked at the research produced by those whose names I've provided. I'll do better than provide you links. Send me an email at and I'll privately enroll you in a 1-1 course on constructivism in mathematics education. I'll send you a pdf of a study each week as an attachment and we'll discuss it via email. When books are more appropriate than articles, I'll either locate them in a local library for you or I'll mail you my personal copy for temporary use.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Hello, Brian.

If we're going to discuss argumentation, it must be noted that you still did not provide research, nor did you explain the dismal outcomes of 30 years of reform math and excessive constructivism in American schools. So far what you have done is make unsupported claims based on not-provided research.

In argumentation terms, that's known as "Fallacies of Missing Evidence."

You also appear to have engaged in "Fallacies of Counterevidence," which includes denying and/or ignoring the counterevidence.

I disagree with your characterization of an ad hominem attack, which is often used to divert attention away from an argument by focusing instead on a person. What is "disrespectful" is in the eye of the beholder.

I'm of the view that telling the truth is respectful, and that lying, hiding the truth or ignoring the truth is disrespectful. I have seen a great deal in public education that is incredibly disrespectful to children, their parents, and to taxpayers in general.

Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by your offer of a 1 on 1 class on constructivism. As a math tutor, I don't dismiss all constructivism in all grades in all classes in all scenarios. Those who accuse me of doing so are engaging in a Fallacy of Diversion, which includes "attacking a straw man" and offering "red herrings."

Still, I suspect that my view of what's needed or tolerable in math classes relative to constructivism is a world away from your view.

Nevertheless, I appreciate your offer, and I'll take you up on it. I'm always open to learning new things. I learned from a student a more-efficient way to factor, and last week, my husband showed me a better way to keep a lengthy algebraic equation in order. If you show me a more-efficient, more-effective way to calculate, I'll acknowledge it.

I hope you aren't coming at this with the perspective that I'm the only one who can learn something. I'm not patient with that attitude. Sadly, it appears to permeate public education.

Niki Hayes said...

I'll offer this information about Jo Boaler as a serious researcher: She was debunked for a "made-up" research program that could not be proven. Google her name about that situation.

Alan Schoenfield admitted in 1992 that the new programs lack "large-scale empirical proof of success or the existence of compelling and documentable standards." But he concluded anyway that "The new approaches are unverified, but plausible." This was reported in an advertisement, "Something that works," Mathematics Teacher, September 1994. Schoenfield also could not offer any supporting information against traditional methods but he still insisted they didn't work. That's an opinion, not fact-based research.

I report on numerous unproven education research efforts in my biography, John Saxon's Story, a genius of common sense in math education.

Brian Gleason said...

Your statement about Jo Boaler’s work is grossly incorrect. Interested parties may see this: for a description of the events, and I quote here a statement by Stanford University regarding the exoneration of Dr. Boaler: “In response to your question, Stanford University wishes to reiterate its strong support for the work of Stanford School of Education Professor Jo Boaler. In 2005, an individual made certain allegations that prompted an inquiry into Dr. Boaler’s research study that later appeared as “Creating Mathematical Futures through an Equitable Teaching Approach: The Case of Railside School” (Teachers College Record, 2008, 110(3), 608–645). Under Stanford policy (and as required by law), the University has an obligation to look into such allegations to determine whether falsification or fabrication of research data or results are being alleged.
The Stanford committee carefully reviewed Dr. Boaler’s study and the allegations that were being made. It concluded that the concerns expressed by the complainant did not demonstrate any evidence of fabrication or falsification. The committee concluded as follows:
“We understand that there is a currently ongoing (and apparently passionate) debate in the mathematics education field concerning the best approaches and methods to be applied in teaching mathematics. It is not our task under Stanford’s policy to determine who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ in this academic debate. We do note that Dr. Boaler’s responses to the questions put to her related to her report were thorough, thoughtful and offered her scientific rationale for each of the questions underlying the allegations. We found no evidence of scientific misconduct or fraudulent behavior related to the content of the report in question. In short we find that the allegations (such as they are) of scientific misconduct do not have substance.” (Emphasis added)
The committee therefore recommended that—as a result of its findings—no further investigation was warranted. The University adopted that recommendation.
Dr. Boaler is a nationally respected scholar in the field of math education. Stanford has provided extensive support for Dr. Boaler as she has engaged in scholarship in this field, which is one in which there is wide- ranging academic opinion. Stanford respects the fundamental principle of academic freedom: the merits of a position are to be determined by scholarly debate.”
Please do not continue to spread disinformation regarding her research.

Katharine Beals said...

It is generally not in a university's interest to find fault with the research of its faculty members, and, accordingly, these in-house investigatory committees rarely turn up anything. A more reliable measure of the accuracy of Boaler's research would be possible if she were to make her date public, which she has not done. Boaler has invoked FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), but FERPA only involves protecting the school records of individual students; not those of whole schools.
For a more detailed critique of Boaler's work, see

Brian Gleason said...

To conduct research at a school, the researcher must obtain approval from an Institutional Review Board. In research areas like Education, this almost always requires legally binding agreements between the researcher and the participants promising, among other things, confidentiality, including the restriction of raw data to those on the research team. Dr. Boaler cannot legally release the raw data because of the IRB agreements. Demanding that she do so is akin to asking a journalist to name his/her confidential sources. It would not only be unethical and illegal, given the agreements required for human subject research, but would have a chilling effect on the willingness of future schools to participate in research. Also, the argument that Stanford had incentive to unjustly clear her because of her employment there is faulty because her accusers were also at Stanford, so some member of the Stanford community looks bad no matter the outcome.

Katharine Beals said...

IRB rules protect the identities of subjects, not of institutions. Raw data can be--and is--released with subjects' names altered to "subject 1", "subject 2", etc.

As for Boaler's own institution, the incentive I referred to isn't about pleasing one professor vs. another; it's about looking good. Institutions look bad if professional misconduct goes public.

Brian said...

If the release of institutional identity would reasonably lead to the identification of participants (such as the name of a school easily leading one to identify the principal or teachers and thereby students) then it is generally not publicly releasable under IRB agreements.
Even if it were anonymous as you suggest, information like Teacher 1's 3rd grade class with 9 boys and 12 girls... could reasonably lead to identification of not only the teacher, but the students as well.
And Stanford's stuck with unethical professorial behavior either way, whether Dr. Boaler lied about or research or Dr. Milgram falsely accused her of doing so without concrete evidence. It was a lose/lose situation for Stanford, which means there was not much incentive for them to rule one way or the other.

Katharine Beals said...

School names aren't generally kept anonymous when it comes aggregate data of the sort that figures in Boaler's studies--test scores; demographics. I can look up any school in my district and find out these things. Naming Baoler's schools in particular will not identify her subjects--the subjects being the students, not the principals.

Regarding Stanford's decisions, I am talking about bad publicity for Stanford ("looking bad"); not about findings regarding the unethical behavior of individuals. The path not taken would lead to bad publicity; the path taken has not.

Anonymous said...

To the defenders of constructivism, where is the proof? And I mean proof in the broadest sense. Student test performance is down nationwide. Other nations are passing us by. How then can you advocate and defend a pedagogy that has failed to produce positive results? At some point you need to reflect on the efficacy of the model and modify it as needed.

In the field of science there is far too much information for students to learn on their own. There is some logic to having students work together to solve problems, but this would be after they have a baseline understanding of the content. Assimilating such a large amount of information puts and burden on the students to learn so much with limited time. Thus it would be better to adapt a mixture of pedagogical schema; teacher-centered as a way of introducing material, then student-centered to apply that information.

However to embrace constructivism as a universal template ignores obvious limitation to the instructional model.