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Posted by on Apr 18, 2008 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Education Reform

Or: A Series of Ineffective but Obvious Quick Fixes for Complex Problems

Let me begin, if I may, with two items on that oft-quoted report from 1983, A Nation At Risk: the first from Carrie’s Nation basically calls out the fact that several of the key assertions actually had very little data to support them; the second from the Economic Policy Institute manages to cram in a couple of key ideas, namely that better schools were never going to save Detroit, that you can’t blame the schools for our current economic messes, that education “reform” isn’t going to magically transform our poorest neighborhoods, and that kids who “need better nutrition, health care and dental care” are going to have a hard time learning no matter what the curriculum du jour is. A Nation At Risk turns 25 this week, so happy birthday to it. You can read it here. Here’s what the Christian Science Monitor had to say about it upon its 20th anniversary.

Now, I think we can probably all agree that our schools, in general, could be doing a better job. In fact, there are some schools that are doing such a bad job that we can legitimately consider them “failing”. Over the years, there have been a number of approaches to improving schools across the board, with a special eye towards those “failing” schools. Some of those approaches have worked better than others.

Maybe you remember from science class that a scientist starts by making an observation, such as “Hey, this school doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of teaching 1st graders to read.” He or she moves on to a hypothesis, such as “I wonder if that’s because there is only one teacher is trying to teach 25 students of various skill levels at the same time.” While some people would start campaigning for class size limits at this point — based on a perfectly logical theory, and a plan that stimulates the local economy by putting teachers to work! — the scientist would like to test the theory before implementing an expensive fix that might not work; the scientist suggests “Let’s try hiring an extra teacher at this one school so we can get the average class size down to 18 and see if that helps,” or “Let’s get an assistant or reading specialist to rotate between classrooms, so we can have groups of about a dozen students and a more narrow range of skill levels.” After a period of weeks or months, the scientist would take a look at the data again to see if this intervention really worked before asking the superintendent to implement this solution across the district.

But what if the scientist looked at the data and found there just wasn’t enough improvement beyond what pure chance could have done? What if she noticed that students in Ms. Smith’s class did better than students in Ms. Brown’s class no matter how many students there were in each? And what if he sat in on a classroom and heard the teacher suggesting that students look at the pictures to figure out what the words were, or guess based on the first letter and how long the word was? Or what if she happened to be in the breakroom when she overheard a couple teachers talking about a couple children who “would never learn anyway“? What if the scientists sat down with the curriculum and found things that were confusing?

The sad truth is that most people never look at the actual data produced by education “reform” efforts to see if it is working, and even the people who do often don’t understand statistics well enough to interpret that data.

And that brings me to a real scientist, Zig Engelmann. He started by teaching his own kid, and brought only one assumption to the table: if the kid doesn’t understand it when I am done, it is because I am doing something wrong. The result was a teaching model called Direct Instruction. Like Toru Kumon a decade before, he examined where students needed to end up, compared it to where they were right now, and devised a series of logical steps to get from one place to the other. However, while many parents are likely to have heard of Kumon, or even sent their children, relatively few people know about DI, and some only happen to know because of an ill-fated little story called The Pet Goat.

When it’s your kid in the “failing” school, you want a quick answer that fixes the problem, and nobody can blame you. And often the administration is more than willing to implement a quick fix that at least appears to fix the problem: kids have contraband so we’ll ban bags you can’t see through; we have a violence problem and some parents accuse us of playing favorites, so we’ll implement a “zero tolerance” policy; some kids don’t have certain skills, so we’ll have standardized tests to make sure they do; some kids just won’t sit still long enough to go through the reader so we’ll give them pills (kindly ignore the subset of these kids who can sit in front of the video game console for several hours!).

Education is expensive and necessary. Without quality public education, you will not have access to people like doctors and lawyers, plumbers and carpenters, accountants and teachers, policemen and firemen. Without quality public education, you won’t be able to count on other drivers knowing what a “do not enter” or “left on light only” sign means. We owe it to ourselves to do find out what works, stop doing what doesn’t work, and move on.

Cross-posted on ShortWoman

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