Getting Good Ideas to the Finish Line: Choice, Political Will, and a Coxswain

A teacher friend of mine showed me the new issue of the American Educator, the American Federation of Teachers publication that bills itself as “a quarterly journal of education research and ideas.” He wanted me to read the cover story, called “Lead the Way: the Case for Fully Guided Instruction.” The research, by Richard Clark, Paul Kirschner, and John Sweller, has been around for a while, but that’s the astounding thing: not only has their research been around, but they argue, quite persuasively, that “[d]ecades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students), direct, explicit instruction is more effective and more efficient than partial guidance.”

I will not pretend to be an expert on teaching, but as a school board member I confess to deep and continuous agita over the system’s inability to do the right thing; rather, its amazing ability to deny reality, which is the prime directive for institutional entropy. (It is not just the reality of good research that is ignored, it’s the reality of crumbling schools and generations of untaught children.) I had a veteran teacher pull me aside one day and almost shout, “They keep giving new names to the same tired and unworkable ideas. Why don’t they just let me teach!”

Since reading E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, celebrating its 25th year in print, I have watched American educators do somersaults to avoid the obvious need for rigorous, fact-based curricula. In fact, the two denials—the effectiveness of direct instruction and the value of content knowledge—go hand in hand and together probably account for most of the national educational malaise. You name it—Clark et al say it goes under various names, “including discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning”—our educators are locked on to bad ideas and ineffective pedagogies like cruise missiles to their preprogrammed targets. “Each new set of advocates for unguided approaches seemed unaware of, or uninterested in,” write Clark et al, “previous evidence that unguided approaches had not been validated.”

As my friend Barry Garelick writes about the new Brookings report on the effectiveness of instructional materials:

The report makes this common sense observation and recommendation: “There is strong evidence that the choice of instructional materials has large effects on student learning-effects that rival in size those that are associated with differences in teacher effectiveness. But whereas improving teacher quality through changes in the preparation and professional development of teachers and the human resources policies surrounding their employment is challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, making better choices among available instructional materials should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick.”

That makes so much sense that it will either be ignored, or the snake oil purveyors who sell Investigations, EM, CMP and the like will claim “We agree! And our products do just that!”

One need not be that cynical about the situation, but willful ignorance is a phrase that often comes to mind when watching such “common sense” prescriptions for change go unheeded. Obviously, those who have been schooled in such notions as discovery learning and are getting paid for using it have little incentive to read the research, much less tell their colleagues about it. And, by the same token, there is no incentive for school boards to change when the money keeps rolling. My colleagues on my school board are education preservers not reformers. Even though their acts serve to reinforce failure, their first instinct is to dig in, to resist change. Why? Well, why not? Over lunch the other day, a board colleague ticked off her list of ideas for creating a good school, including creating a “culture of high expectations.” When I asked, how you go about doing that, she was stumped; rather, she didn’t like the answer, which was to hold teachers and administrators accountable for student performance. She preferred, “It’s the parents.” And so it goes.

Even when angry citizens come to the board, as several did a few weeks ago, their complaints seem to fall on deaf ears.

“We hear all the time, `Don’t rock the boat,’” said one of those complaining parents. “But I can tell you, we are strapped in, and the boat has turned over.” The problem: the kids are drowning, but not the educators.

Complacency is how Hirsch, who tends to see the problem as “bad ideas” rather than “bad people,” explained the problem in an essay two years ago in the New York Review of Books:

The root cause of [the public education] decline, starting in the 1960s, was a by-then-decades-old complacency on the part of school leaders and in the nation at large. By the early twentieth century worries about the stability of the Republic had subsided, and by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth-a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience.

Paying little attention to the results of the “anti-bookish, child-centered viewpoint,” as Hirsch writes, the nation slept while it experienced “a steep decline in twelfth-grade academic achievement between 1962 and 1980, after which, despite vigorous reform efforts, reading and math scores on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress have hardly changed.”

And now, as Hirsch warns, we are trying to yoke the child-centered anti-intellectualism to our new testing and accountability fetish. “This contradictory and self-defeating situation,” says Hirsch, has lead to even worse practices:

…drills in how-to skills that will prepare [students] to pass tests. Many of the weekly hours that are assigned to language arts in the early grades are now being devoted to practicing reading strategies such as `questioning the author’ and `finding the main idea.’ [Diane] Ravitch describes in detail a highly touted reform in New York City and San Diego called `balanced literacy,’ which requires students to spend a lot of time practicing such reading strategies but does not prescribe any particular books, poems, and essays to practice them on.

The good news is that we have two trends that are gaining ground on the monster that is our education system:  a renewed appreciation for content (and that is not, as some would have it, a sudden love of “nonfiction”) and the new market mechanisms (i.e. choice) that incentivize innovation and renewal. If we can keep our eyes on the prize of the former, we will sort out the problems of dumbed-down instructional materials and vapid instructional techniques.

As for the latter, David Brooks set out our choices nicely the other day in an essay about our “two economies.”   One economy is that of the free market, which Brooks says has a “creative dynamism” that is both “astounding and a little terrifying. Over the past five years, amid turmoil and uncertainty, American businesses have shed employees, becoming more efficient and more productive. According to The Wall Street Journal on Monday, the revenue per employee at S.&P. 500 companies increased from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2011.”

Public education, for the most part, still lives in the second economy: “a large sector… that does not face… global competition.” Its leaders do “try to improve productivity and use new technologies, but they are not compelled by do-or-die pressure, and their pace of change is slower.” Why?  Because there are no widespread threatened layoffs. No guillotine focusing the mind.

Brooks understands the “conflicts between those who live in Economy I and those who live in Economy II” and how “choice-oriented education reforms” might terrify those clinging to their monopoly guarantees as they face the prospect of an education sector “as dynamic, creative and efficient as Economy I.”

Though most of the public education sector still does not see the “urgent need to understand the interplay between the two different sectors,” there are signs that even in education, increasing numbers of leaders of Economy II are finding ways to make our schools not only responsive to good ideas but to the educational needs of their children. And they are not afraid to light fires of accountability—no more teacher tenure, more value-added evaluations—that mimic the incentives that characterize Economy I. Once parents are untethered from the overturned boat, those not wanting to rock it, like my board colleagues, will understand that they better stop worrying about the weather and start doing what’s needed to stay afloat. Shouted the coxswain: Row!

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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