Five Questions and Answers

by Dr. Joseph Horn

Given the contradictory information about schools prevalent in the media, it is not easy to sort out the facts about what works and what doesn’t. When reading about school issues, pausing to ask a few simple questions can keep the reader focused and prevent faddish but inconsequential ideas from dominating the discussion. 

Question Number One : Always ask if students are allowed to move through school without learning what they should. 

If you discover that all it takes to graduate from high school is a seventh or eighth grade achievement level, you can conclude that no mere teaching innovation or infusion of money in the lower grades is going to have a significant impact. If the system is set up to permit, or sometimes even require, the social promotion of a third grader who is not yet reading at the first grade level you know you are dealing with a school system that is unwittingly dedicated to failure. 

After the first few grades, students understand whether or not poor performance brings forth any consequences. If they discover that homework really doesn’t have to be completed or that examinations really don’t have to be passed in order to be promoted, a major incentive for improvement is lost. School systems without consequences for failure are actually providing the conditions under which future failure is nurtured. 

Question Number Two : Are honest measures of performance being taken and are honest grades being assigned? 

If a school refuses to use standardized assessments that are appropriately difficult and norm referenced and/or has a policy of grade inflation, you can conclude that the school district is dedicated to concealing the truth from itself, the parents, and the children. Some schools have decided not to administer measures of reading performance because of the perverse notion that the very act of discovering deficiencies contributes to them. Under such a system, the students and parents are kept ignorant of problems that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. 

The refusal to identify problems early and deal with them honestly account for much of the failure in our schools. The International Mathematics and Science Studies, three of them over the last 30 years, each have shown the futility of setting low standards and giving high grades for mediocre work. These international comparisons show American students performing at or near the bottom of the list of developed countries, with our performance improving only to average when third world countries are added to the comparisons. Unfortunately, Texas contributes in a major way to the problem. Our state scores are among the lowest in the country. Perhaps it’s time for us to require more than a seventh and eighth grade proficiency in order to graduate from high school. One thing is sure: fooling ourselves doesn’t fool others. The whole world is watching when international comparisons are made. 

Question Number Three: Does the school respect individual differences and are good students given the opportunity to develop their proficiencies still further? 

In recent decades, a surprising hostility to high achievement has developed in our schools. It stems from the mistaken notion that individual differences in school achievements arise from unfair advantages enjoyed by good students. Believe it or not, there are people running our schools today who believe that assigning homework gives an unfair advantage to good students and that honors programs should be eliminated because they allow the better students to move still further ahead of their peers, increasing the amount of inequality in society. The notion that only those teaching methods and only those curricula that promote equal outcomes should be employed in the public schools is gaining in popularity among school administrators. 

Egalitarianism makes about as much sense in the classroom as it does in athletics. We know what would happen to performance if we adopted the attitude that our better athletes should be denied access to training or coaching just because they respond to them better than other people. Yet we seriously entertain such absurd notions when they are advanced about school performance. One thing is certain, if we are unable to rid our schools of these philosophical straight jackets that are being forced upon our better students, we will never be able to improve our schools. 

Question Four: Are the teaching methods that are being used in the school justified by research showing they actually help children learn? 

A school curriculum and the teaching methods used to deliver the curriculum to the students ought to be firmly grounded in the research showing what is needed and what methods work best. This requirement should be stronger than just saying that education should be “informed” by research; educational practice ought to be “driven” by good research. 

How children are grouped together for the purpose of instruction should also require justification according to research. 

Good research requires two things: control groups and random assignment of subjects to the experimental and control groups. Current practices and future changes should be based on what has been shown to work in research of this kind. 

The best way to ensure that good research gets into the classroom would be to require school districts to publish and publicly justify the research upon which their curriculum and teaching methods are based. This would not discourage innovation. As a matter of fact, innovation would be encouraged in the context of an evaluation to determine if the innovation actually improves learning. Another point is that each district would not have to carry out its own research. Research done elsewhere, if of sufficient quality, could be used to support the district methods. 

A requirement that school districts publicly justify, in research terms, their curriculum and methods would likely force them away from the ideologically driven speculations that are the basis for too much of our schools today. 

Concerning the impact of such a requirement on the individual teacher: teachers would have as much freedom as they do now. Only policies and directives that are directed at the entire school would fall under the guidelines of the statute. 

Two examples show how this requirement might have kept fuzzy-minded pedagogies from damaging our children. Whole-language reading instruction and heterogenous grouping of students would never have passed the test of good research record prior to adoption. Concerning heterogenous grouping see Benbow and Stanley: Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1996. The article is titled: Inequity in Equity: How “Equity” Can Lead to Inequity for High-Potential Students. This contains a good review of research relating to heterogenous grouping. 

Question Five: Before supporting the acquisition of computers for the classroom, ask how they will improve academic performance. 

The role that new technology and computers can play in education is not well understood. Much of what is being attempted is being done just because we have the machines. Observing the current rush to incorporate computers into our schools, more than a few critics are beginning to ask just how this will enhance actual school performance. 

Todd Oppenheimer writes of The Computer Delusion in the July, 1997, issue of The Atlantic Monthly and concludes “there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs - music, art, physical education - that enrich children’s lives to make room for this dubious nostrum.” Oppenhiemer describes how American educators seem easily duped with claims from technology. First there were educational films, then in-class radio and television, followed by programmed instruction on teaching machines, and finally computers. None of these technological innovations have lived up to their billings. 

Oppenheimer takes all of the arguments offered in favor of computerizing instruction and shows how the research is contradictory, misleading, or of questionable generalizability to the real classroom or real world. For example, one claim is that early and intensive computer training is required to make tomorrow’s work force competitive in an increasingly high tech world. This is countered by the evidence that while most jobs will require some computer usage, the necessary skills can be picked up “in a summer.” Another review of the claims made by computer advocates, with conclusions similar to Oppenheimer’s, comes from David Skinner writing in The Public Interest, Summer, 1997. Both of these articles are well worth reading. 

It is possible that, someday, research will justify a specific program for the utilization of computers in the schools. That day has not yet arrived. Let’s wait until we know what we are doing before making a costly investment in computers. 

High standards with consequences for failure, honesty in measuring performance and assigning grades, and respect for individual differences are the three most important elements in any solution to the problem of chronic under performance in our schools. We know what to do, now what we need is the will to do it. 

All of these questions remain to be answered. Indeed, they even remain to be addressed in most school districts. 

Dr. Joseph Horn is a professor of psychology and the Director of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Senior Fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, independent research institute located in San Antonio, TX. He is also president of the Texas Association of Scholars, an affiliate of the National Association of Scholars.

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