Education Research a “National Scandal”

by Robert Pondiscio
May 10th, 2010

If we want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement, education research must we must do a better job of providing rigorous, high-quality research on what works, writes Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley.  Using a baseball analogy, Begley writes that as pay-for-performance spreads, “we will be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats.”

“It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use. Yet in one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal.”

“There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works,” William Cobern of Western Michigan University tells Newsweek. “It’s a crazy situation.”

Begley’s argument only scratches the surface.  Teacher training programs in schools of education are, to put it charitably, of uneven quality.  Teachers have no say on curriculum (and more often than not no curriculum at all) and little control over the pedagogical methods they employ.  School environment and disciplinary policies are above their pay grade.  In sum, the proposition for a classroom teacher too often boils down to this:  take your third-rate training, your lack of meaningful feedback, your absence of meaningful professional development, this content-free, feel-good pedagogy, and teach it in the cognitively suspect way we demand.  And if you fail, the fault is…yours! 

Yeah, that’ll work.   It has to, in fact, because we’re all about accountability.


  1. I would add that the ed schools teach false doctrines that hobble the teachers who conscientiously attempt to adhere to them. For example, the doctrine that lecturing is borderline malpractice. Or the doctrine that intimate and deep knowledge of your subject area is of relatively small importance. Or the doctrine that negative sanctions don’t work. Or the doctrine that facts stultify kids’ creativity and critical thinking. Or the doctrine that all-purpose critical thinking skills can be taught. Ed schools are to teaching what Ptolemy was to astronomy.

    Comment by Ben F — May 10, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  2. Right on, Robert and Ben! I would add to the list of culprits teachers’professional organizations such as The National Council for Teachers of English and gurus such as Linda Darling Hammond.

    Comment by Long-time observer — May 10, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  3. Robert,

    “In sum, the proposition for a classroom teacher too often boils down to this: take your third-rate training, your lack of meaningful feedback, your absence of meaningful professional development, this content-free, feel-good pedagogy, and teach it in the cognitively suspect way we demand. And if you fail, the fault is…yours!” Very well put. This, with Ben’s additional point that ed schools are often not only useless but harmful, describes the situation exactly.


    Your point is well taken. We aren’t responsible for creating this mess, but we must work to fix it.

    Comment by Robert Fauceau — May 10, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

  4. [...] Teachers have no say on curriculum or teaching methods, adds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. They can’t control the school environment or the principal’s disciplinary policies. In sum, the proposition for a classroom teacher too often boils down to this: take your third-rate training, your lack of meaningful feedback, your absence of meaningful professional development, this content-free, feel-good pedagogy, and teach it in the cognitively suspect way we demand. And if you fail, the fault is…yours! [...]

    Pingback by Teaching with a foam bat « Joanne Jacobs — May 11, 2010 @ 6:03 am

  5. Can anyone EVER imagine Mass General or Brigham and Womens hospitals training their doctors the way so many teacher colleges/schools of education (don’t) train their teachers? And people actually wonder why teaching is more akin to a civil service occupation than a profession. It truly is an embarrassment.

    It’s beyond disappointing for the teaching profession the way there appears to be little or no conscious direction for any form of pedagogical reform, save virtual/distance learning. Additionally, the V/D reform will be discredited by the national teacher unions (NEA) because it potentially is such a threat to their monopoly. It could take them awhile to smear the movement but just as they’ve managed to squelch vouchers and are making every effort to destroy the charter movement, one can rest assured, their anti-online learning campaign will succeed in the end. They may well employ convoluted and irrational thinking in their efforts but that’s never deterred them in the past.

    Yes boys and girls that’s right; once again the union your teacher belongs to will place the interests of adults (your teachers) over the interests of children (you).

    Don’t you just love this occupation (aka profession) we’ve devoted our lives to?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 11, 2010 @ 6:56 am

  6. Another point….

    There really IS some good research already out there on what works, best practices, rigorous statistical studies, etc. In education, unfortunately, these tend to be unknown at best or ignored at worst.

    In science, medicine, etc. research is taken seriously and results applied.

    Is it any wonder why educators aren’t taken seriously as professionals.

    Comment by e.g.e. — May 11, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  7. How much comes down to the fact that many administrators and elementary teachers spent much of their academic careers avoiding math/science/statistic classes? If the decisions makers do not know or understand research and stats how are they supposed to use it?

    Comment by Matt — May 11, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  8. Just read the letter from the new NCTM President describing their Research Agenda Project and the need foe what works in math.

    Apparently they do not like the research from NMAP or the Access Center or Kirschner Sweller & Clark.

    They’re looking for research to justify the curricula and agenda they plan to implement.

    We are striking fear in the heart of the Asian economies with our emphasis on “reasoning and sense making” in high school math.

    How many American students will learn to hate math because worked examples are anathema in ed schools and the inquiry approach is being renamed and venerated as “productive struggle”.

    Comment by Student of History — May 11, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  9. And they are quite excited about the new Common Core standards and how they will be able to implement them.

    “NCTM has been able to maintain a strong voice and be heard and reckoned with in the Standards discussion” .

    Oh great and now we’re federalizing these fuzzy ideas and developing new assessments that will obscure the detrimental effects of such an approach to math and reading.

    Comment by Student of History — May 11, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  10. Student of History. I think you can probably breathe a bit easier when you think of the Common Core standard. After all, they have received a thumbs-up from E.D. Hirsch and The Fordham Foundation. Neither, you would have to agree, tends to support “fuzzy ideas.”

    This may be an instance where people on different sides of an issue can come together. We have to be very careful not discard a set of standards merely because it receives a green light from people we don’t agree with.

    Comment by Claus — May 11, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  11. In recent months I have been tending toward what I might call the “teaching animal hypothesis”, defined more or less as follows. Man is the animal that teaches. We have evolved to teach.

    That has several components. We have evolved as general problem solvers. That is important. We have a big brain, because every now and then that big brain proves to have survival value. We have evolved as users of language, again because every now and then communication has survival value, sometimes crucial survival value. We have evolved as social beings. We organize ourselves in communities, which often has strong survival value. We also organize ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. That causes lots of pain and destruction, but I conclude that in the big picture it must have survival value. We have evolved as beings of culture. We have evolved as a species of prolonged childhood, which allows time for learning, and we have evolved as a species of long life, which allows for grandparents to have an influence. From this it is not at all a big step to the idea that we have also evolved as a species that actively and consciously teaches.

    The thinking that leads up to this includes many things. A beginning step is the observation that we generally teach as we were taught. (I think Erin Johnson was the first to call it the “legacy system”, at least I think that’s where I got the term.) One can go two ways with this observation as a beginning. One can conclude that we blindly follow tradition, whether it works or not. Or one can conclude that we are following what works. We are not blindly adhering to tradition. Rather we are feeling our way through a difficult mission as best we can. We are in a process that we don’t understand very well from an objective analytic perspective, but a process for which we have been evolving, and for which we have natural talents and propensities, imperfect though they may be.

    I go with this latter interpretation. I have argued previously that the main components of teaching are our natural intelligence, our learned subject matter knowledge, our social skills (both natural and acquired), our communication skills (again both natural and acquired), and our knowledge of our culture and cultural expectations and values. None of these components come primarily from ed school. Parents in general have these about as much as teachers (other than that teachers are selected to some extent by the requirements of a college education). Thus it is no surprise at all that home schooling is often very successful, and often very efficient (depending on how efficiency is defined).

    If this “teaching animal” hypothesis is essentially correct, then it would seem to follow that the best avenue to educational improvement would be to investigate, analyze, and understand what teachers naturally do, and then build from there. By that approach we can give teachers a basis for insightful reflection on their own practices, thus enabling them to improve in ways that make sense to them.

    Here is a parallel that comes to mind. Take an art class of twenty painters of varying talent. Observe something in the best painting, say a red rose in a garden scene. Then insist that the other nineteen students incorporate that red rose in their painting. We can call it artistic improvement. We can call it artistic reform. We can call it best practices. Or we might decide it’s a bad idea. It is certainly true that twenty paintings by twenty different artists will vary greatly in quality. But it does not necessarily follow that we can improve them by edict.

    Comment by Brian Rude — May 11, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  12. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chad Ratliff, Chan Stroman. Chan Stroman said: Education Research a “National Scandal” « The Core Knowledge Blog: via @addthis [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Education Research a “National Scandal” « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- — May 11, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.