In the 1990s my school system demanded that our teaching be research-based. This was pre-NCLB, so the purpose had nothing to do with “the test.” Rather the goal was to make sure all teachers were using “best practices” for their teaching. I was reminded of this recently when I read this post by Russ Walsh…
…as I have talked to teachers over the years about instructional practice, I have heard a lot of faith-based language.
- “I don’t believe in homework.”
- “I believe in phonics.”
- “I don’t believe in teaching to the test.”
- “I believe in independent reading.”
- “I believe in using round robin and popcorn reading.”
For about 2,000 years doctors “believed” that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Today, I would bet if you encountered a doctor who recommended blood-letting for your flu symptoms, you would run, not walk, out the office door screaming. Science, and mounting numbers of dead patients, caught up with blood-letting. So, as professionals, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards. We need to follow the science and stop talking about our beliefs and start talking about the scientific research behind our instructional decision making.
Scientists understand that science isn’t static. It changes as knowledge increases. We know now that the Earth revolves around the Sun…that germs, rather than demons, cause disease… and that we had better find alternatives to our current energy sources before we choke the breath out of life on Earth. Our understanding grows. Our knowledge grows.
The same is true with learning. As teachers, our understanding of child development, pedagogy, and the impact of the outside world on our students must grow and change as our understanding of those concepts changes based on new research. We need to alter our presentation and adapt our instruction to incorporate new information and techniques as they become available.
A teacher who thinks she knows everything there is to know about teaching and learning will not be effective for long, because what she needs to know will likely change throughout her career. Teachers must be the life-long learners we wish our students to become…we must continue to be students…if we want to grow in our knowledge and ability.
There are, however, times when a teacher’s attempts to use “best practices” and a well-researched basis for teaching is thwarted by outside forces. For example, the out-of-school factors associated with child poverty interfere with learning and achievement. Even the most well-trained, up-to-date, and knowledgable teacher will have difficulty reaching students who come to school traumatized, hungry, or sick.
In addition to social factors interfering with teaching and learning, the government can be a hindrance to good, research-based education. Two ways government interference prevents schools from doing what is best for students are 1) inadequate funding, resulting in large class sizes, and 2) the requirement that students either pass a test or repeat a grade.
LEGISLATIVE INTERFERENCE: CLASS SIZE
We know that class size has an impact on student achievement and learning, especially with young, poor, and minority students. Smaller class sizes work because students are more engaged, they spend more time on task, and instruction can be customized to better meet their needs.
So why don’t we reduce class sizes?
It costs too much.
Legislators don’t want to spend the money to reduce class sizes. State legislatures around the country are generally filled with adults who have never taught and don’t know anything about education or education research. Instead of learning about the research into class size, (or listening to teachers) they simply look at the cost. Smaller class sizes means higher costs…and with the obsessive, anti-tax atmosphere in most states, legislators don’t want to increase funding for public schools just to make classes smaller.
Steven Singer makes the case for small class sizes…
The benefits go far beyond the classroom. Numerous studies concluded that reducing class size has long lasting effects on students throughout their lives. It increases earning potential, and citizenship while decreasing the likelihood students will need welfare assistance as adults or enter the criminal justice system. In short, cutting class size puts a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that those students who benefit the most from this reform are the young, the poor and minorities.
See also Class Size Matters.Org
LEGISLATIVE INTERFERENCE: RETENTION IN GRADE
Studies going back over 100 years are consistent in their conclusion that retention in grade does not result in higher achievement.
This is a subject where legislators, parents, and even many educators, don’t know, or refuse to accept the research. If a child doesn’t learn the material required for a certain grade, then the impulse is to “give him another chance” by retaining him. I’ve heard parents and teachers claim that retention in grade gives a child “the chance to grow another year,” or “catch up.” None of those statements are based on research. Retention does not help students, and often causes harm.
Legislatures in many states, including Indiana, have chosen third grade as the year in which students must either “be average” in reading or repeat the grade. The legislature, in other words, has decided that, if students cannot reach an arbitrary cut-score on an arbitrary reading test in third grade, they will not be allowed to move on to fourth grade. The cause of the failure is often not taken into consideration. Students have trouble learning to read for a variety of reasons, yet legislatures apply the single intervention of retention in grade to reading difficulties no matter what the cause. Unfortunately, this has no basis in educational research.
Students are punished by legislative decree for not learning to read soon enough or well enough.
Recently Michigan joined the “punish third graders” club.
In an effort to boost reading achievement in the early stages of elementary school education, public schools across the state of Michigan are conducting universal screening and diagnostic testing of kindergarten through third grade students.
The testing is in response to Public Act 306, passed in October 2016 by Michigan lawmakers, called the Third Grade Retention Law. The law was passed to ensure that students exiting third grade are reading at or above grade level requirements. All students in grades K-3 will be assessed three times per year, fall winter and spring. The assessments will identify students who need intensive reading instruction and provide useful information to help teachers tailor instruction to meet individual student needs. The law also states that a child may be retained in third grade if he or she is one of more grade levels behind in reading at the end of the third grade.
Florida is another one of the states which punishes children for not reading well enough. In this article Nancy Bailey takes the state to task.
If they aren’t reading well enough, they will have to remain in third grade–so they will do more reading remediation! They will watch as their classmates leave them behind.
At this point, how much do you think children like to read?
The Florida plague, the undeniably ugly and stupid practice of flunking children if they are not reading well by third grade, is now a reform across the country.
Legislatures force teachers and schools to accept practices which we know through research are detrimental to student learning. We’re forced to accept responsibility for working conditions which interfere with achievement, and then we are held accountable when the practices fail.
Teachers (and schools) should be accountable for understanding the
scientific research behind our instructional decision making.
But policy makers should also be held accountable for the instructional restrictions they place on public schools.