Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Train Wreck Revisited

The 'Train Wreck' is one of the 5 things that should keep a parent awake at night worrying.  Three of these are reserved for children over the age of 12, and that only leaves 'Lacking Motivation to Read' as the two things you need to worry about right now.

The term 'Train Wreck' is used in situations where a child who previously got all A's in math is now getting a C.  This most commonly occurs between 4th and 8th grade.  It can also occur in Algebra or Geometry.   This term also applies to a child's test scores falling from 99% to anything below 90% and is somewhat related to regression to the mean.

None of this is very shocking.  You want shock?  Let me define this term formally.

Train Wreck:  At one point, your child held a formidable skill set and did well in math.  A few years later, when your child faces a new math, the child doesn't do well because the child does not possess the skill set required to do well.  You are left wondering what happened and either correctly blame yourself or incorrectly blame the teacher.

The most common cause of the 4th grade Train Wreck is a child who is overly endowed with skills entering 1st grade and spends the next 3 years at school not thinking.  By 4th grade (depending on the school district and curriculum), there is a jump in complexity, and the child has no tools in the tool shed.  The train wreck in middle school or freshman year is usually caused by a catastrophic failure of curriculum, but can also be the result of a bright child languishing in an average curriculum.

Regression to the mean is an empirical consequence of the level of instruction in school.  Kids who score below the mean usually catch up test-score-wise while experiencing instruction at the mean, and kids who do much better than the mean usually slow down while experience instruction at the mean.  I'm waiting for the field of cognitive psychology to have a 'duh' moment and figure this out, but tat the time of this writing, they are still baffled.  Anyway, Regression to the Mean is a less dramatic version of the Train Wreck but is caused by the same factors.

There are at least 2 leaps in cognitive requirements that take place in grade school math, and at least two in language arts.  In high school, a really great curriculum will have at least one leap every year (most don't).   Are you happy with your child scoring well this year, or are you really concerned about their score in 2 or 3 years?  Thanks to No Child Left Behind, teachers are  mandated by law to be concerned only about this year at the expense of next year.  Thanks to having 30 kids with a variety of skill sets, the teacher can only do so much.  You're going to have to pick up the slack. 

Happily, I've found that being only concerned with 2 years from now tends to take care of this year and next year for no additional effort.  By when we work ahead 2 years, I stay focused on the skills, not the math.

There's a really great book by a psychologist to deal with the Train Wreck.  There's a lot of great 'Yoda' in this book, but it's downfall is that the author doesn't address the skills issue.   He has a valid excuse because he has a PhD in Psychology, a field who thinks IQ magically happens. I've done a little work in this area, but not enough to write a book.  My market is shooting for 99% (if you're reading this, this is now your official goal if it wasn't before) and we're going to need the whole bag of skills to get from X% to 99%.


  1. completely unrelated to this post, do you recommend any card or board games for a 5 year old that help develop cognitive skills in a fun way for the family?

    1. I recommend them all. Poker went over here; my son made chips and had to go to gambling rehab. I also like Uno, Battleship (boys), trouble, life, quirkle. At older ages (6-8), monopoly, taboo, scrabble, sorry, the 8 ball, munchkin, exploding kittens, checkers. I love them all. Some of these are more in the 7-8 year old range, but the little kids love playing with older kids regardless. Everything I put on my list is a certified hit with GAT kids. This is a great lineup for gifts. We spent more time with puzzels and felt crafts and dollar things I bought at Michaels that involved paint and glue at age 5 than board games. I'm sorry to report that we spent a lot of time with shutes and ladders and hi ho cherry o at age 5. It didn't seem to matter that the game was not age appropriate.

  2. Hello Norwood!
    I've been reading your blog for some time and have purchased both SSC and Pre-K Phonics. I love your content and appreciate the wealth of information and innovative ideas you've developed!
    I have two wonderful little boys (ages 3.7 and almost 2); I have no idea if they're "gifted" or not but I want to give them every opportunity to try.
    My question: in our district (in Southern California), the first GAT testing occurs in the middle of second grade with the CoGAT. I know you've said a few times that you shouldn't test prep non-stop, but given this information, how do I pace their test prep/off-season to suit the CoGAT mid-second grade? Will my boys "forget" SSCC by then?
    Thank you for your help!

    1. Thanks for your comments. Kids aren't born gifted, they get there by their activities and focus. The skills picked up at a young age are not matched by kids who pick them up later. If you keep up your reading and some math in K, the skillset will just keep growing. It's not only permanent, but the advantage increases over time. I can't tell you your pace, every kid is different. Some take a long time to get started, mine took a month to get past the first page of phonics. It won't matter 3 or 4 months into it. Keep me posted. I'm interested to see how it goes in your case.