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November 11, 2002

Education and Science


My experience at our Lousy Ivy University, my adventures with public and private school education for my children, and the stories told me by an executive who left the corporate world for a teaching career, have all left me with a sort of bruised curiosity regarding education. That is to say, I remain curious about and sympathetic to efforts to make education better, and I think it’s as important as all get out, but I wince in sympathy for anyone daring to stick their snout into the midst of the pedagogy industry.

Now I will grant you, about 10 years ago my interest in education had grown rather sleepy as I had gotten further and further out of the clutches of professional educators. So I was pretty nonchalant when my wife announced that after surveying the local educational options (public school, for example, flopped when there turned out to be no morning English-speaking kindergarten classes at our neighborhood school), she had decided that our eldest child should get a private progressive education. I thought, well, fine, how bad could it be?

Unfortunately, I found out. On parents’ night in first grade my daughter’s teacher began to go on and on about the intellectual pedigree of each specific technique involved in what I later learned was a "whole language" reading program. Finally, I interrupted the interminable discourse (it was like listening to a nobleman reciting the list of his illustrious ancestors) and said, “It’s great that these guys—whoever they are—thought this stuff up, but you know it works, right? This is the best way to teach kids to read, right?” Well, it turned out that this teacher actually had chosen her methods on the basis of aesthetics, or something—these methods spoke to her. She seemed to nurture a pious hope that they might also speak to the kids. When I went to get to the bottom of things with the principal, I started to realize my worst fear: not that this school might have chosen the wrong approach—which could have been fixed easily enough—but that the teaching profession placed so little value on testing the efficacy of their techniques that nobody knew definitively what worked. It just wasn’t a priority for these people. Studies were done and such (although usually sloppily) but all they resulted in were more angry polemics—it was like living in a hallucinogenic banana republic where the losers never accepted the election results.

So when I picked up the New York Times Education Life section of November 10, I didn’t even wince when I read the following in James Traub’s story, “Does It Work?”:

The idea that pedagogy ought to aspire to the condition of science, or even social science, is quite novel, and it runs against the grain of mainstream educational culture. As Grover J. Whitehurst, assistant secretary for research and improvement at the Department of Education, says, ''Education has not relied very much on evidence, whether in regard to how to train teachers, what sort of curriculum to use or what sort of teaching methods to use. The decisions have been based on professional wisdom or the spirit of the moment rather than on research.''

However, Mr. Traub points out in his story (which you can read here) that Congress recently passed legislation creating an Institute of Education Services to foster a new culture of rigorous research in education. It will be headed by Dr. Whitehurst, a psychologist who has researched the effectiveness of the Head Start program. Dr. Whitehurst is also setting up the What Works Clearinghouse, a body that will establish standards for research and determine which of thousands of studies on class-size reduction, peer tutoring, reading instruction and so on meet those standards. The question raised by Mr. Traub’s article, however, is whether more or better research will actually lead to any real world improvements, given the enormous lack of interest in efficacy on the part of teachers and teacher training educators. As he points out:

The pattern of traditional teaching methods faring better in rigorous comparisons than more open-ended ones, and then of the open-ended ones flourishing nevertheless, has repeated itself many times over. The best-known instance of the phenomenon is probably the endless battle between the proponents of phonics and of whole language instruction. Virtually every impartial effort to analyze the hundreds of studies on the subject, most recently by the Reading Panel of the National Institutes of Health, has found that the step-by-step approach of phonics is more effective, especially with poor children. But phonics…is still a four-letter word in progressive reaches of the educational world…

Mr. Traub also raises the issue of how practical initiatives based on even the best of studies often have disappointing outcomes. An extremely scientifically rigorous study of class-size reduction was begun in 1985 by the state of Tennessee, which appeared to indicate that students in smaller classes enjoyed significant gains in reading and math scores (although the gains faded over time.) However, when California was moved by Tennessee's study to spend billions of dollars in the mid-1990s hiring new teachers to create smaller class-sizes, the results were much less impressive than the study had predicted would occur. (Mr. Traub mentions that partisans of reducing class size blame California's implementation, i.e., California hired too many incompetent teachers in an effort to rapidly implement this initiative.)

All this practical muddle, of course, plays well inside the education industry, where it is interpreted to mean that so many variables go into learning that one cannot ever generalize from classroom data--as opposed to, say, that teachers lack sufficient discipline to apply more than one teaching method competently. In short, in the education industry's favored world view, trying to look for hard evidence supporting one approach or another is (1) difficult and (2) will just get you ignored by one group or another in the pedagogic community, so let’s go back to theorizing and polemics—it’s so much more fun.

Of course, all this really shows is that once a profession (like teaching or medicine) educates its trainees in the notion of their credentialed autonomy—that is, “No outsider is ever competent to ever tell you how to do your job”—all hope for the meaningful application of reason goes away. Well, guess what: just as doctors never made any real effort to do outcomes research until being bullied into it by HMOs and large employers, teachers are never going to start thinking rationally about pedagogy until they get bullied into it too.

My only advice to anyone assigned this task: carry a big stick and wear a lot of padding.



posted by Friedrich at November 11, 2002



There is a huge subculture dedicated to answering your precise questions and concerns, and bursting with confident and well argued answers. Basically "whole language" has been a disaster, and, these folks say, "synthetic phonics" is what works best.

I know it's a uk site, but it will connect you with this world quite well: Here in the UK we have exactly the same problems as the ones you described in the USA.

"rrf" stands for Reading Reform Foundation. Go to that site and press "links". Scroll down, you'll find some USA sites.

I've just started a specialist education blog, and I'm going to flag up your piece, and your blog generally. (Again.)

I hope that helps.

Posted by: Brian Micklethwait on November 11, 2002 3:39 PM

My memory may not be reliable, but this is what I remember: In kindergarten and first grade, I attended a private school with phonics. In both grades, we regularly had to read aloud from our books and from the blackboard and even the allegedly slow children were able to keep up. Then my parents stuck me in a public school with whole language. In public school, we didn't even attempt to read aloud until fourth grade, and I was not able to count on a classroom of students who could all keep up with the text and read out loud when their turn came until... actually, that never happened. I went through high school with people who needed help deciphering concert ads in the newspaper. Thank god for radio - otherwise those people would never have been able to see Blue Oyster Cult.

Posted by: Gert on November 11, 2002 8:07 PM

The Brits call it "synthetic" phonics. In the U.S., look for "systematic" and "explicit" teaching of phonics. That means the teacher teaches the letter-sound relationships, instead of assuming kids will pick up phonics "naturally." If they say it's a "balanced" approach, make sure that doesn't mean 10 percent phonics and 90 percent whole language.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on November 11, 2002 9:52 PM

My children attend catholic schools where thank God, Phonics is still taught. The logic of Phonics is so basic as to seem to me beyond reproach. Anyway, my wife is teaching CCD this year, and the public school kids have great difficulty reading and comprehending. I know it is a small sample size, but we have decided to continue the Catholic education experience until at least college, no matter how painful paying taxes not to use schools is, education is much to important to leave to the morons in public education.

Posted by: Kevin on November 12, 2002 5:05 PM

Without getting into the phonics vs whole language debate, about which I'm sure everybody else on this page knows more than I, there has been an interesting pattern with regard to many other teaching techniques. Basically, what happens is that a very good and highly-motivated headteacher will implement a teaching system which has stellar results. Other people, who are also highly motivated, adopt the system and also get very good results. Eventually, the Powers That Be decide that it would be a good idea if everybody used the system, it gets forced onto teachers who aren't motivated to use it and don't particularly want to use it, and it has no discernible effect at all.

This is why scientific studies of educational systems are so difficult to conduct: if it's not in broad use, your sample is inevitably going to be skewed.

Posted by: Felix Salmon on November 13, 2002 1:02 PM

I'm much more interested in how our educational system serve students in the so called secondary school system. It seems to me that the whole system is skewed. Students are required to be in school, are mostly told what classes they have to take and are told what they have to learn, with more and more emphasis being put on testing.
I see a couple of problems here. One is that when you take this kind of approach with teenagers the most common result is passive resistance. The other is that the curriculum seems skewed towards the continued path to college or university, while missing out on general life skills that would seem to have the highest utilitarian value (cooking, budgeting, the importance of networking and credit. Stratagies for planning the developement of your curiculum vitae...)
I have tried to speak with educators about this and it's like I'm talking gibberish. It's very frustrating

Posted by: Jeff Bellamy on November 13, 2002 2:12 PM

The educational system and the teaching of reading remind me of the story "The Emperor's New Clothes." The agenda of schools is a muddle of ideologies that clothes the majority of students in nothing. If the goal of schools is to teach the needed skills for literacy and mathematical competence, then educational palaces and byzantine methodologies are unnecessary. To raise the reading level of all children to that required for fluency is simple if phonics is taught for the first six years of school. To teach the mathematical skills requisite to maintaining a balanced checkbook (fluency with numbers) is simple if basic math skills are focused on for the first six years of school. Notice a pattern here? A population capable of governing themselves is possible if they have a set of commonly held basic skills for communication, managing finances and an understanding of their historical and legal traditions.

Posted by: Harry Robbins on November 14, 2002 5:06 PM

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