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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Puffing Up the Fad Machine

By Rick Hess — December 07, 2010 3 min read
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Since my earliest days in teacher preparation, I’ve been disconcerted by education’s appetite for faddism. And I’ve been confounded by journalistic cheerleading for one fad after another. Yesterday, the Washington Post‘s story “Montgomery’s multi-tasking Little Red Riding Hood"--featured on page one of the Metro section--offered a textbook example of how the press too often encourages the destructive, cringe-inducing pursuit of miracle cures.

The WaPo‘s Michael Birnbaum penned the standard four-element “fan the fad” piece to perfection. He opened with the obligatory “in the classroom” lede: “The Gaithersburg first-grade class was analyzing ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ but instead of parsing the tale’s literary merits, it was safety time: Don’t tell strangers your address. Later, the topic turned to science. The students discussed how animals protect themselves, using the wolf and the young girl as examples.”

He then flagged the national, transformative import of this seemingly mindless example, “Montgomery County schools say they have found a way to bring back history, science and art into daily classroom life, subjects that have been crowded out of schools in the decade since [NCLB]... Their approach will soon spread across the country as part of a $2.25 million agreement with Pearson, the world’s largest education publisher, to develop and market a new elementary school curriculum.”

Next, Birnbaum quoted an educator who explained that talking about safety while reading Little Red Riding Hood is a huge deal. He quotes “veteran” teacher Gale Mundy’s testimonial: “They’re more engaged, and it means more to them. The important message was always hard to pull out for them” through the old methods. “Now we’re doing a little bit of everything,” Mundy said. Birnbaum demurely avoided mentioning that most competent teachers do this already or asking why Mundy hadn’t previously been discussing the substance of stories with students.

Finally, Birnbaum briefly noted that some might regard this as one more warmed-over bit of obviousness, but suggested it’s much more clever than it may seem to the great unwashed. He explains, “Part of what’s cutting-edge may seem slightly old hat, educators acknowledged: the idea that multiple topics be taught through one theme. Remember reading the tale of Johnny Appleseed, eating apples in class and collecting fall leaves? [But] Montgomery teachers say the new method, which they call an integrated curriculum, pushes much further.” He quoted Principal Carol Lange explaining, “This is higher level. Like understanding patterns. It helps the child’s chance of success.”

In paragraph twenty, Birnbaum finally, casually noted that “not all teachers are fans of the new program” and that some say it’s now more difficult to “tailor lessons” to the needs of various students. He quoted teacher Helaine Cohen observing, “We have no idea what’s above grade or what’s on grade level.” Yet, he asked no questions of district leaders about these concerns, the $2.25 million outlay, the cost of training and implementation, the evidence this is working, whether previous efforts of this bent have actually paid off, or about possible unanticipated consequences.

Strikes me that good reporting doesn’t echo the puffery of public officials but challenges them to justify outlays and new programs. Yet, all too often, when it comes to dubious new edu-fads, newspapers forsake skepticism while offering rosy, wide-eyed accounts. For reporters eager to dismount that treadmill, here are four questions worth asking district officials about hyped new reforms:

1] When you tally up purchasing, training, and development, how much is this going to cost? Can you make the case that this is the best possible use of those dollars?

2] What’s the evidence that this reform is going to work as intended for your students, with your teachers, and in your schools?

3] How is this latest initiative actually, meaningfully different from what you’re already supposed to be doing--and from previous, similar-sounding “reforms”? What will really change, and why will it matter?

4] What are the possible unanticipated consequences? How will you guard against them and how will you know if they’re happening?

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.