Education Letter to the Editor

Can Research Help Schools?

July 31, 2007 3 min read

To the Editor:

I agreed readily with many of the ideas in Ronald A. Wolk’s Commentary “Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won’t” (June 20, 2007). At the end of the essay, however, he asks, “Could a carefully constructed program of strategic research priorities lead to an integrated assault on education’s systemic problems?” After 35 years in education at both the K-12 and university levels, including a period in schools under a federal desegregation order, I answer with a resounding “No!” to this question.

The reason? At a certain level—and I believe that the high level of performance of many successful urban charter schools validates this statement—it is not the education system that is broken. In some of our country’s schools, we have broken children. No dedicated teacher of reading, math, social studies, or science is going to be able to fix a lifetime of neglect, and sometimes downright cruelty.

Until policymakers confront this reality and focus on creating a system, independent of schools, that addresses deficiencies in meeting Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem), including the needs that are the domain of schools (intellectual development, aesthetic appreciation, and self-actualization), this battle Mr. Wolk calls for will never have a chance of being won.

While some students have small needs that school counselors, psychologists, or teachers can address, many of those in “failing” or “broken” schools are so mired in personal deficiencies that educators are not able to address these extreme inadequacies while also teaching the three R’s.

We need to change the focus of research in failing schools, so that the real problems can be addressed.

Marianne Cinaglia

Wilmington, Del.

The writer is a professor emeritus at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J.

To the Editor:

In his Commentary “Education Research Could Improve Schools, But Probably Won’t,” Ronald A. Wolk suggests that teachers are not aware of current research, and would not heed it even if they were. He quotes Deborah J. Stipek, the dean of Stanford University’s graduate school of education, who has written that “the desire to consult research and the skills to interpret it will need to be developed within the teaching community.”

But what research are they talking about? Mr. Wolk himself claims that much of educational research is unreliable, because there are so many variables that can’t be controlled. If a new “study” comes out, another one will follow to contradict it.

Over the years, we have learned much about educating a child. There is ample research that is well-established and known to almost everyone in the education community. We have found, for example, that scholastic achievement is positively influenced by good health, an extensive vocabulary, cognitive ability, high educational attainment in parents, high-quality preschool, a large number of books in the home, high verbal ability of classroom teachers, time spent reading at home, time spent listening to parents read aloud, and achievement and positive attitudes of peers. Studies of high-achieving students have been very consistent.

The problem is, of course, that we are unable to provide many of our students with an equal opportunity to access those experiences that most influence their level of education. Simply providing high-quality preschools in poor areas would cost more than citizens care to spend. Paying highly qualified teachers a competitive salary and giving them time to plan lessons would help as well, but the cost would be prohibitive. We know what to do, but are we willing to pay for it?

So I ask the question again: What research are we talking about?

Linda Mele Johnson

Long Beach, Calif.