Experts Seek To Shift Focus of Reforms To Content, Texts

By Susan Walton — March 28, 1984 13 min read

San Francisco--The focus on “more” that has dominated the quest for excellence in education must be broadened to include equal attention to the curriculum, textbooks, and instructional methods that make up the “what” of schooling if improvement efforts are to pay off, a forum of nationally known educators and policymakers has suggested.

One key part of this shift, the experts agreed, will be the establishment of clearer goals for schooling--including a better definition of “excellence.”

“We have the opportunity, but we have to deliver,” said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction. “If we’re going to push for quality, we will have to define what quality is.”

“I think we also need a new definition of excellence. The one used most is simply high test scores,” added A. Harry Passow of Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The forum, “Excellence in Our Schools: Making It Happen,” was sponsored by the College Board, the Far West Laboratory, the California School Boards Association, and the Association of California School Administrators. About 900 people from 39 states and the District of Columbia attended the three-day forum.

National Discussion Furthered

The goal of the forum, according to the organizers, was to bring together experts who do not normally have occasion to meet and to “initiate and consolidate” the national discussion on improving education. In exploring topics that ranged from teacher training to the teaching of “thinking skills,” the participants outlined some changes they viewed as necessary to improve schools.

At the conclusion of the forum, 10 task forces set up by the organizers issued a series of recommendations. Characterized as tentative, the recommendations urge shifts that would change the scope and substance of schooling for both teachers and students.

Some participants also suggested that school officials must make it clear that there are many obstacles on the road to “excellence.”

“In the field of education, we have not honestly presented ourselves to the public as being confronted with problems that have no solutions in the scientific sense of the word,” said Seymour Sarason, professor of education at Yale University.

Integrated Learning

For students, the proposals would refocus curriculum away from the strict segregation of subjects and would add some new skills to the traditional list of basics.

Integrating reading and writing with each other and with other subjects should be a key part of curriculum improvement, the task force on reading and writing recommended.

“The two have been kept apart, with both losing strength because of it,” said John Guthrie, director of the International Reading Association, who presented the task force’s recommendations. An equally serious problem, he said, is the isolation of reading and writing from the rest of the curriculum.

“Although reading and writing should be primary goals of elementary education, they should not be disembodied from other subjects,” the group said.

With the traditional separation of the two in the classroom, “We miss out on the great contribution that one can make to the other,” said Donald Graves, director of the writing laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and a leading expert on the teaching of writing.


Experts at the forum also advocated the use of “metacognition” strategies, which help children understand their own thought processes. As children become more adept at reading, writing, and calculating, they gain greater knowledge of their reasoning strategies, and that knowledge helps them learn, according to Scott Paris, a researcher at the University of Michigan.3 Through classroom instruction, teachers can foster children’s awareness of these strategies, Mr. Paris said. Improved awareness increases confidence and helps children understand the rationale behind such things as drill-and-practice exercises, he said.

Beau Fly Jones, curriculum coordinator for the Chicago Public Schools, suggested three ways to include thinking and learning strategies in the curriculum. The first, “embedding” them, involves incorporating them into existing instruction, she explained.

The second approach involves using a parallel “thinking skills” curriculum that is taught separately from academic subjects. And the third, staff development, involves training teachers in the strategies so that they can use them in the classroom, according to Ms. Jones.

The task force on thinking and reasoning skills recommended that, first, research in these areas should be “vigorously pursued.”

“We believe that research in these areas could show unusually large returns,” said the task-force chairman, Raymond Nickerson, a psychologist with the Boston research firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman.

But at the same time, the group concluded, educators must pay more attention to the transfer of research to practice. There is a “fair amount” of research on the subject, but its findings are seldom put to use in the classroom, the task force noted, suggesting that another key component will be training teachers in the strategies.

Better Materials

Educators must also work to improve texts and instructional materials, meeting participants agreed. The task force concerned with classroom materials urged that all of those involved--teachers, publishers, and adoption committees--aggressively pursue improvement in this area. One key recommendation was to rely less on readability formulas in evaluating texts and more on “less numbery” methods, said Jean Osborn, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois and chairman of the task force. Teachers and textbook writers can tell whether children understand a textbook by sitting with the students as they read, Ms. Osborn noted.

Publishers, too, should rely less on readability formulas and pay more attention to the text structure and how it affects comprehension, the group advised. And teachers, who must deal with the consequences of someone else’s decision about textbook purchases, should tell publishers and adoption committees when they are not satisfied with the materials.

Numerous speakers also urged educators to use fewer textbooks and more “real” books, magazines, and newspapers. Not only are they more interesting than textbooks, but they improve comprehension by giving children additional background information, and they are a rich source of new words and ideas.

“Schools spend a lot of time speaking of vocabulary, but research shows that children learn 3,000 words a year,” said Richard Anderson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. “They’re not learning the words from drill, but from listening and free reading.”

Schools, he said, should provide children with a good supply of books and the opportunity to read them.

“A child who gets a high score on a vocabulary test is a child who’s had broader exposure,” Mr. Anderson said. “The way to improve vocabulary is to have richer reading.”

Similarly, educators should pay equal attention to reading skills outside formal reading classes. In a presentation on reading in content areas, Harold Herber of Syracuse University pointed out that students who learn to read are not necessarily equally skilled at reading to learn. “The assumption is that if they have one, they automatically have the other,” he said. “If they continue to fail reading to learn, we give them more learning to read.”

Mr. Herber urged instead that the emphasis be reversed: that teachers “help students learn to read by having them read to learn,” an approach that involves pursuing the content and “letting skills develop.’'

“I think you can make it happen regardless of the curriculum,” he said. “You’re not changing the curriculum, but making it concept-based. ... Do not set up a dichotomy between skills and ideas.”

Computers and Science

Computer literacy, too, should be part of the revamped curriculum, according to the task force on that issue. The group concurred with the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which recommended that computer science become a “new basic” and that each student have a half-year course taught by a specialist.

But the group cautioned that the mere presence of computers in the schools does not guarantee their effective use. To make the best use of computers, the group recommended, school officials should use computers for instruction in tasks such as writing and establishing databases that students can use as references.

Reiterating recommendations of recent national reports, speakers suggested that the goals of science education be broadened to meet the needs of students who do not plan careers in science or engineering.

The task force on science and mathematics education, chaired by Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, urged particular attention to the teaching of science in the elementary grades. Numerous reports have documented that little time is spent on science at this level.

“What is called science at elementary schools is strongly driven by textbooks,” he said. “Science at the elementary level is almost entirely reading. It is not science.”

Instead, the task force said, teachers should focus on direct experience before introducing children to the words and symbols of science.

The panel also recommended the retraining of unqualified science and mathematics teachers and urged that computers be used as tools to supplement textbooks.

Testing and Standards

Testing is likely to continue to play a prominent role in the reform movement, speakers suggested, necessitating a sophisticated understanding of the purposes and limitations of testing.

“The largest single outcome of all this attention to excellence will be the addition of more tests,” said Rogel5Ler Farr, a professor at Indiana University who has conducted extensive research on testing. Mr. Farr noted that he expected little argument on that point, except from those who contend that it is impossible to add more tests because every conceivable test is already being administered.

The tests have a significant impact on the curriculum, speakers noted. “There is no question in my mind that tests drive the curriculum, but it works the other way, too,” said Jason Millman, professor of education at Cornell University. And test publishers, he pointed out, are ready to produce whatever kind of test the schools demand.

“The problem appears to be not the test, but that the profession still hasn’t decided what it wants as the outcome,” said S. Alan Cohen, professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

The task force on testing recommended measures that would address these problems in part. If a testing program is mandated, the testing task force recommended, teachers and administrators should discuss with the testing agency what the tests should be used for. Test producers, for their part, must be explicit in stating the intended use of the test and should keep track of the use of test scores and related information, according to Stephen Ivens, a College Board official who chaired the task force.

Once they have started using a test, school officials should publicize the test standards, the procedures used to determine whether the standards have been met, and the steps that schools will take to assist students who score below the standards.

Also important, the task force said, is improving the “test literacy” of educators, who need to become more knowledgeable about the capacities and limits of testing. “Educators must refocus their passive approach to testing to an active focus,” Mr. Ivens said, and should use tests for purposes of prescription, instruction, and intervention.

Moves to increase high-school graduation requirements have offered officials one highly visible way to demonstrate their commitment to improving the schools, said members of the task force that dealt with that issue. They agreed that “all students should have the opportunity to perform against stated standards.”

But the members recommended that students, in keeping with the wide variation in their needs and abilities, be permitted to meet the standards in a variety of ways. Students should also have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their level of achievement and should receive feedback from instructors about that performance, the group said.

Improving Teaching

Teachers will play the central role in making any other education reforms work, speakers agreed, and upgrading the profession is important. But according to the task force on teacher training, there is a dearth of information on which to base recommendations for improvement.

“We find ourselves knowing less about how teachers learn to teach, what they learn, and who teaches them,” said Judith Warren Little, a3researcher with the Far West Laboratory.

Despite that scarcity, the task force presented an “action agenda” that endorsed the notion of “flagship institutions” that both conduct research and train teachers; urged an increased interaction between schools and universities; and recommended promoting the connection between staff development and curriculum improvement.

“Where are the models for teacher improvement?” asked one audience member.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Little replied.

“There’s been a lot of talk lately that good teachers are born, not made,” noted Ms. Osborn of the reading center. “Heaven help us if that’s true.”

Time for Transition

All the reforms proposed by researchers and practioners, however, do not add up to a clear definition of excellence, several speakers noted. And given the possibility that the current interest in education will soon subside, the policymakers expressed concern that the reforms may not come about quickly enough.

How much time is there? “Not much,” said Ted Sanders, superintendent of public instruction in Nevada. “It will be with us through the election.” But, he added, if another economic recession hits in January 1985, as some have predicted, the amount of money available for reform may shrink rapidly.

“I’d go with a year, going downhill after the election,” said Richard Deasy, assistant superintendent of public instruction in Maryland.

Mr. Honig of California also conceded that “the window of opportunity is very limited.” But, he added, “We don’t need the public beating down our door.” What was needed, he said, was to ignite public interest enough to prompt change.

The officials also suggested strategies to maintain progress once it begins. Mr. Honig proposed the establishment of “quality indicators,’' measures by which the public could gauge progress in improving the schools. Such indicators, he said, would provide clear-cut goals that would be “deliverable.”

Mr. Deasy of Maryland suggested that education officials set up multiyear plans--perhaps in five-year cycles, he said, so as not to coincide with political cycles.

Gov. Richard H. Bryan of Nevada suggested that legislatures will respond more positively to requests for money to remedy specific problems. “When you just say, ‘We need $10 billion,’ you won’t get the consensus,” he said. He noted also that “you won’t get away without reference to test scores. They may be too simplistic, but the public believes in them.”

The strategy of seeking “targeted funds” proved successful in California, Mr. Honig noted, where education officials went to the legislature and told them what they would do if given the money.

Education reform, however, will have to compete with other needs in legislatures, the officials noted. “I find a will within the legislature and governor, but the tradeoffs are tough,” noted Mr. Deasy. “If expectations are not fairly immediately forthcoming, the backlash could be fairly significant. If they don’t see something that translates to excellence, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Experts Seek To Shift Focus of Reforms To Content, Texts