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THOMPSON: The Conveyor Belt

Lucy Chocolate Rightly or wrongly, "reformers" want the nation’s entire k-12 school system to step up its game, and that could help explain where they went wrong. The conveyor belt that we call public education has many flaws, but it does a pretty good job of educating students who had the foresight to select effective parents, who learn to read for comprehension, and who develop the soft skills required by a student. Even in 23 struggling middle schools in Philadelphia, when a student attends class at a rate of 95% or above, puts out above average effort, and does not become a discipline problem, there is a 77% chance of closing the achievement gap.

Convinced that our whole educational system is collapsing, "reformers" set out to fix and speed up the entire conveyor belt while also addressing the very different problem of children who have fallen off the assembly line. By conflating the two distinctly different goals, NCLB supporters produced unintended consequences which have damaged both sets of students.

Robert Balfanz showed that schools where "tens" of students needed remediation, the after-school tutoring financed by NCLB could be successful. When hundreds of students need remediation, however, those schools are overwhelmed. Educators in those schools resemble the Lucy skit where she struggled to keep up with the speeding assembly line. A comedian can eat the chocolates that fall off the line. Teachers who are pressured to cover all of the standards in time for the tests can not go that far - literally. But there is an old saying, "feed the teachers or they will eat the kids." - John Thompson


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See if you can lay your hands on the following article: McNeal, R. B. Jr, (2001). Differential effects of parental involvement on cognitive and behavioral outcomes by socioeconomic status. Journal of Socio-Economics, 30, 171-179.

It's an interesting longitudinal study using a very large sample from NELS. Among is findings is that impact of "effective parents" may be somewhat overstated. That is, the impact of parents doing the right things washes out for students who are greater than one standard deviation below the mean of socio-economic status. Further research is needed, but given the things that we already know about what happens in the schools at various economic strata (less highly qualified teachers by most available measures, greater reliance on suspension and expulsion as a means of discipline, differences in the amount of time devoted to things like the arts and recess, attitudes towards parents and family), why doesn't it make sense to consider wholesale reform of schools that are not meeting the needs of hundreds, as opposed to tens, of students.

Why is school improvement, as a concept, not embraced by teachers in low-income schools? Why are professionals not picking up the flagstaff and leading the parade?

I recall an exercise that I was given in a management class. We were divided into groups to accomplish some task that had to do with forming sentences made of words that we could create by using the letters in some word that we were given. In our first go around, we organized around the conveyor belt. One person made nouns, another made verbs, another made adjectives, etc. and the last constructed sentences. We didn't do very well. For our second round we reorganized. It turns out the verbs were driving the sentence. Nouns were pretty easy to construct, but noun-verb agreement was sometimes difficult. So, we worked together at constructing a group of verbs, then we worked to create nouns to match the verbs. We improved greatly.

Now, I have worked a bit on conveyor belt set-ups, one summer I spent in a hospital kitchen. When washing dishes, the point of advantage was loading the machine. A heartless loader could really pile up the folks at the other end (and earn a short break) if they chose, just by racing through all the plates (which were easy to load, but took more time to put away) first. Working together required sending things through with some balance--and paying attention to what was happening on the other end of the line. I love the Lucy and Ethel sketch. It's brilliant humor. But, don't confuse it with real life. We have more choices than they do.


I've also worked on conveyor belts while unloading trucks. You can unload 1200 boxes an hour but only load 600. So, real life, do you put more people loading or unloading? Real life, you are staff the unloaders, putting more boxes of the conveyor belt than either the equipment or the people can handle. The corporation loses money due to damaged packages and damaged people, but that's management. That's human nature much of the time.

We have more choices, especially in affluent schools. It would be great if kids in poor schools could be exposured to the exercise that you enjoyed. I've seen the successes that result when we treat poor children with respect and not cogs in a machine. But when NCLB supporters try to punish teachers, it is the students who are hurt.

In my experience, teachers welcome reforms. We keep trying to make them work. The problem is that so many "reforms" are doomed to fail because of the indignities they inflict on students and teachers alike.

I would welcome an environment where teachers only had to worry about the best ways to improve student performance. now, we have to fight on two fronts, defending our kids from ill-conceived "reforms" as we try to figure out better ways of serving students.

For example, you ask "why doesn't it make sense to consider wholesale reform of schools that are not meeting the needs of hundreds, as opposed to tens, of students?" Just put pencil to paper. How many hours in a day are there? How long would it take to provide after-school remediation to hundreds of students per day, and then corrdinate those interventions with their class' instruction? When high schools schools have hundreds of students reading at 5th and 6th grade levels, they need more capacity of classroom instruction. They need more capacity for holistic instruction.

And the toughest schools must shift their preoccupation with remediation to building upon the strenghts and talents of its students. But when the law and the system is focused soley on deficits, we miss the point. And when you concentrate on rubbing teachers noses in it, then the result wil inevitable rubbing the students noses in it.


Do you think anyone will EVER suggest methodological reform for schools? I ask because as I've improved as a teacher, and watched others improve, I notice that if we end up being really effective, we also end up with very similar methods. Similar methods bind teachers of diverse backgrounds together.

At one point in my company, we had an Evangelical Christian working on the same team as an avowed pagan. And they really liked and respected each other -- primarily because they shared the same approach to teaching (which implied a shared value system about kids, the world, life, etc.).

Methodologically, teaching has been dominated by the "transmission" method and by scripted or programmed instruction. But those are hardly the only choices. Why, in your opinion, does no one ever bring up methodological reform? And why don't "smart" people in high places know about methods like the "workshop" method of teaching?

(I asked Dan Willingham about it re: his new book and his idea that kids need just the right degree of challenge. I pointed out that that meant differentiation and that the workshop model had the best approach to differentiation. He said he'd never heard of it.)

Just wondering... especially since I've built the entire 15 years of education career on the assumption that methodology mattered! I hope I haven't wasted my time.



FYI, Steve, you might be surprised (or not -- I'm not sure how familiar you are with charters) to learn that most KIPP schools use the Reader's and Writer's Workshop method. In addition, most have a daily "clubs" period that consists of small, specialized classes that also usually use the workshop method.

Maybe some smart people in high places actually do know about other methods of teaching (like workshop)...

Also, re. conveyor belts -- I actually tend to like the metaphor, but not because I want to speed it up. I like the idea of a "cradle to college" conveyor belt that parents can actually trust, so they can send their children to school every day, whether it is preschool or 12th grade, and know that schools are helping their children climb the ladder to college. Montgomery County, MD, uses a "continuum" approach like this to ensure that curricula are aligned and children are supported every step of the way.

So let's not speed it up, let's make sure it's trustworthy, functional, and heading toward the same place for all students regardless of socioeconomic or racial background: college. And if we're going to keep using the same metaphor, let's make sure the people running the conveyor belt (i.e. teachers and administrators) are watching every student to make sure he doesn't miss a step in the process, and if he does, give him the help he needs to get back on and not fall by the wayside...


Good point. when I remembered that Geoff Canada named his system the conveyor belt, I almost replaced all usage of that word with the word assembly line. And I've read good things about Montgomery County approach. And I welcome successes by KIPP.

But real world, if we're going to continue to demand that neighborhood schools serve two masters - the assembly line and the kids who fall off it - few schools will succeed. Double or triple per capita funding to the levels of Montgomery County, and maybe things will be different. As I have written, I typically have 140 students, and my Inactive Roll included 107 stdents. So, I had someone transfer in and out every day. Of course, many of my highly mobile students transferring in and out of various households, jails, shelters schools, etc has been hurt by drug abuse, murder, mental illness, etc. But most fell off the assembly line when their parent or grandparent died of cancer, heart disease etc.

Steve has a point about the "transmission line." Its not what people say. Its what people hear. As long as our rhetoric is permeated by blame and shame, and we're speaking the macho language of Accountability, educators with a hammer will see students and teachers as nails.

Hello can you please meassage me on my E-mail On who made the convayor belt

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