Friday, July 17, 2009

A Plan to Increase Achievement:
Explicit Instruction, School Autonomy, Not National Standards.

A Plan to Increase Achievement:
Explicit Instruction, School Autonomy, Not National Standards.

If you've been suspicious of "discovery" or "inquiry" learning that can be found throughout our schools, your suspicions are well founded.

Good teachers design classroom instruction not just on past experiences but also on relevant data. One of the best places to look for empirical evidence likely to increase achievement is the book, Visible Learning by John Hattie, a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement that collectively looked at 83 million students. It reports the following “effect sizes”:

Problem based teaching = 0.15
Inquiry based teaching = 0.31
Direct Instruction = 0.59

An “effect size” of 0.30 or lower is ineffective. So put to rest the example based "Explicit/Direct Instruction" vs. "Discovery/Inquiry" controversy by using this major report. Teaching students directly is superior to go figure it out on your own. There is a reason that people pay for golf lessons and piano lessons; they wish to learn by direct instruction because it works.

Studies, occasionally underwritten by publishers and other special interest vendors, often conflict with one another generating confusion and rendering the phrase “research shows” meaningless. Fortunately, other respected peer reviewed empirically validated studies show direct instruction can be the source of increased achievement. Kirschner-Sweller-Clark’s (2006) “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching” is excellent.

A special issue on “Evolution and Education” of the Educational Psychologist journal, October 2008, contained the following target article: "An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science" by David C. Geary. It also contained an accompanying piece “Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology” by John Sweller. These contain a history of how the constructivist discovery/inquiry approach began and explain why, based on brain architecture, it remains an ineffective pedagogical approach.

While few math teachers may reference the above studies, most teachers interested in increasing the measurable academic achievement of their students are aware of the inadequacies of the inquiry approach. Some guided discovery activities may be beneficial but inquiry based teaching fails. It’s true that research mathematicians and highly trained, knowledgeable scientists use inquiry to extend acquired knowledge, make discoveries, and spawn invention. But that in no way legitimizes “inquiry” as an exclusive pedagogical approach. Expecting students who are not experts, but novices, to discover through inquiry the knowledge accumulated by experts over centuries is neither efficient nor realistic.

Those running our schools operate as an oligarchy and often mandate that teachers do the opposite of what empirical evidence indicates. After a decade of failure in mathematics, many choose to stay the course with costly “reform math” and show no interest in correcting their errors. For them, ideology and profits trump evidence. In Washington State, the former Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson produced mathematical chaos throughout the state by pushing her inquiry-based reform math agenda during 12 years in office. Nationally, the story has been much the same via National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, which funded the development, promotion, establishment, and use of “reform math.” The universities welcome this money for it increases department budgets and prestige. It should be noted that much of what math teachers and the public have “suffered through” and been “oppressed by” came from a few hundred million dollars in NSF funding that was initiated over 20 years ago.

Since results matter, it is time to move from the suspicion that “reform math” might not be a good idea to political activism to stop it. Currently, members from a select group of ideologues are involved in directing the development of National Common Core Standards. These unelected developers were not even appointed by elected officials. The question that must be answered is how these individuals are qualified to serve and why aren’t there active teachers involved in the writing? Many were the authors of past chaos. Phil Daro immediately comes to mind from the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas. The Dana Center became the hired ($770,000+) agents of Dr. Bergeson and worked to continue the “reform math” chaos until that was halted by the legislature. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card, reported from 2003 to 2007 that the achievement gap changes in mathematics were among the worst in the nation for Washington’s Black students in 4th grade as well as 8th grade. These same miserable results were reported for Hispanic students.

To obtain academic improvement, classroom environments must be improved not by administrative fiat but by supporting teachers, parents, and students through developing, improving, and maintaining learning communities to meet the needs of each student as they increase core knowledge.

The acknowledgment that students are individuals having differences in interests, genetic abilities, environmental skills, and intellectual capabilities would be an excellent antidote to the insanity of broad general government mandates about what all students will do.

Since we are already captives of vendor-based standards, I trust we will not be far off if we refer to the coming Common Core Standards as the No Vendor Left Behind Law. These vendor-friendly standards will be products of the oligarchy and not of democratic decision-making. Vendor-friendly standards are biased toward spending on expensive to develop and administer annual tests, which increase corporate profits but not learning. Often technological spending is advocated, which usually fails to increase achievement. It is time to focus on providing each child with the education they need for successful lives and careers. Both remediation and acceleration through effective interventions are needed. The ending of social promotion will do far more than another artificially raised and expensively annually monitored bar. Support of democratic reforms for greater local autonomy in the classroom and school may enable teachers to use explicit instruction instead of being required to use ineffective approaches.

All the talk about accountability in public education produces little if any improvement. It is time to end the trend toward centralized authority in education at both the state and national level. Sham accountability must end. No Child Left Behind sanctions were often counterproductive. A school with its own board of trustees and a principal having greater control over both budget and instructional decisions would be a significant improvement. Then the principal as leader could be easily supported and held responsible by both the board and school community. This structure would greatly reduce central administration inefficiency as well as fad- and vendor-based decisions. Such schools are necessary if we are to make the substantial improvements needed in public education. Learning improvement occurs locally. Believing otherwise is folly.

copyright@Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr.