by Robert Pondiscio
August 10th, 2010
When education policies are adopted at the state or federal level, the belief they will improve things “is not based on anything much more solid than faith or hope,” writes Dan Willingham.
Wrapping up a series of posts over at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the UVA cognitive scientist notes that because there are so many moving parts in student outcomes, changing in one factor might yield no difference in student performance. That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. In a previous post, Willingham pointed out that a problem in one part of a school system might mask positive change in another part, “just as repairs to the electrical system of a car might appear to have no effect if the fuel system also needs repair.” This notion seems lost in policy debates, which look at results on a system-wide basis.
Because we lack sufficiently sophisticated system models, Willingham argued in a subsequent post, we “don’t really know what we’re doing in education policy, beyond a very rough cut.” In short, Willingham argues, ”we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.”
Moving forward, we have two options, he concludes. We can invest the educational equivalent of the moon shot.
Or we can continue doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years: quibble about theories of systems that we don’t understand, without taking seriously the challenge of understanding them. That’s the path that has cost countless kids a good education along the way, and has led us to the place we are today–a place that very few argue we should stay.
It’s a shame Willingham’s cogent series of posts are appearing in the dog days of summer and are obscured behind the buzz surrounding Race to the Top and the i3 grants. He’s taking the broadest, longest possible view and essentially offering a prism through which to view every recent and current ed reform debate. Here’s hoping some influential policymakers and deep-pocketed philanthropists can take a few moments away from their preferred “theories of action” to consider, “Is he’s talking to me?”
by Robert Pondiscio
May 18th, 2010
The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) may find itself in the crosshairs for political correctness and staking out controversial positions, but a true bill of particulars against the organization would include its inability or unwillingness to act as an honest broker in determining the validity of education research.
Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham responds to the recent screed by Sharon Begley of Newsweek, who described education research as a “national scandal.” There is a lot of excellent research, but there’s also “a lot of dreck,” he observes. But good luck telling the difference. A professor of psychology at UVA, Willingham points out that psychology “is more vigilant in its self-regulation, particularly through its professional societies,” which he notes are “deeply committed to scientific rigor, they are run by scientists, and they publish very high quality research.” But where do you turn if you’re a teacher looking for research on teaching children to read?
“The American Educational Researchers Association (AERA) ought to be logical place, but it has not shown a lot of interest in taking on the job. I think a large part of the reason for this is that it is an enormous organization that includes scholars from very different disciplines: psychology, economics, political science, critical theory, history, feminist studies, etc. These different fields not only have different criteria by which evidence is evaluated, they have different definitions of what it means to “know” something. Small wonder, then, that AERA is seldom ready to make a flat statement on a research issue.”
This lack of clarity opens the door for “commercial interests and frank snake-oil salesmen” to hijack the conversation on research issues, observes Willingham, which “damages the field, and ultimately harms students.” He suggests AERA start by getting its members to decide which issues within education are amenable to a scientific analysis. “Education researchers frequently lament policy makers cherry-picking research findings to support positions that they advocate for non-research-based reasons. Until researchers get their act together, we continue to invite them to do so,” he concludes.
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.