Education Opinion

Why ‘What Works’ Doesn’t Work

By Leon Botstein — May 28, 1986 9 min read

“What Works” just doesn’t work. But because this U.S. Education Department booklet, subtitled “Research About Teaching and Learning,” appears so benign, helpful, and simple, one is not inclined to subject it to careful scrutiny. Who could possibly argue against urging parents to encourage children to read and “scribble stories”? How can one object to self-evident claims that speaking and listening help children become better readers? Why quibble with a document that calls for well-designed homework, strong school principals, and teachers who share their ideas and welcome professional suggestions?

How can anyone fault a publication that calls for earlier teaching of foreign languages, a stronger emphasis on academic courses and scholastic achievement, more rigorous textbooks, and more concentration on the teaching of history and writing? How can citizens and educators possibly find assertions of the value of hard work and fair and consistent discipline politically controversial, especially when such “findings” appear to carry the authority and validation of social-scientific research in education (even though many of the references cited are no more than essays of opinion)?

The answer is that beneath the veneer of innocence and common sense are a series of basic deceptions. Far from being an objective distillation of research efforts, “What Works” is a brilliant piece of partisan politics and public relations; a display of the Reagan Administration’s consummate skill in making appearances and facile fictions suffice where concrete action in the face of harsh realities is required.

The first deception is that educational ''research’’ has shown that self-improvement and a few easy tips can solve the severe crisis in American education. This brief “how to” booklet provides the rhetorical justification for why significant assistance from the federal government is not necessary, why the systematic and callous withdrawal of the federal government from its proper financial role in education is professionally “right.” This publication seeks to convince Americans that money can’t and won’t solve the problems facing our schools. Rather, if only parents and professionals follow a few maxims, things will turn around. All that is needed from Washington now is a primer of first principles.

“What Works” continues the Administration’s effort to maintain the initiative in the national political debate about education. It is supposed to show that the Administration supports better schooling at the very moment it advocates serious cuts in current budget appropriations. ''What Works” is a surrogate for the financial initiatives that are necessary if the higher standards and improved results we all desire have any chance of happening at all. ''What Works” seeks to deflect attention away from the true role and responsibility of the federal government in education.

For example, the pieties in this pamphlet about better methods of teaching, more carefully graded and evaluated writing and homework, better conditions for teachers, and better textbooks are meaningless in a country that will face a massive teacher shortage during the next 20 years; that does not now possess, as the National Academy of Sciences has pointed out, teachers of science and mathematics with adequate (much less superior) levels of competence; that does not have a cadre of foreign-language teachers sufficient for current requirements, let alone a much earlier start for schooling in foreign languages.

The resources at the state and local levels, without federal aid, are insufficient to provide the teachers and class sizes that can make real the kind of teaching of science, English, and history that ''What Works” argues correctly would be a good thing.

What is perhaps most objectionable about ''What Works” is that it lacks any real context. The Education Department abuses its authority by claiming that significant improvement is possible in the absence of fundamental changes in the financing of our schools and the training and recruitment of teachers.

The partisan politics and, sadly, the intellectual dishonesty of ''What Works” are most apparent in the specific “findings” of the document. In his introduction, Chester E. Finn Jr., poses the question: ''Why is so much of the research about elementary schools and disadvantaged children?” The political agenda is clear. The federally sponsored efforts of the 1960’s and early 1970’s--the presumably soft-headed liberal initiatives--were misguided. The Coleman Report--hardly an incontrovertible piece of social science--apparently concluded ''that unequal achievement could not be ascribed to unequal school resources.”

The programs of the 60’s and 70’s, however faulty, were at best beginnings. They never provided an adequate proving ground for a Coleman-style conclusion, even if one wished to accept the Coleman study’s unscientific but commonplace mistaking of correlations for causal links. But why should the emphasis not be on disadvantaged children and elementary schools? History shows that education has been an effective instrument of social mobility for the disadvantaged in our society. They require more effort and investment than the affluent do. But since this is not what the Administration wants to do, that priority is dismissed in the name of “research.”

Absent from this seemingly objective compendium of “what works” are the positive results of past programs that could easily justify a policy of serious initiatives on behalf of the disadvantaged and equal school resources for the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The booklet’s first “finding,” in fact, contains a lie camouflaged as a hypothetical statement: that the children of the disadvantaged “can do as well at school as the children of more affluent families.” No research has shown or can show that “what parents do to help their children learn is more important to academic success than how well-off the family is.” The most persistent historical correlation in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, for example, has been between income level and the level of scores.

What the authors would like us to believe is that if parents did their job as “the first and most influential teachers,” there would be no need for special programs, no need for a larger investment in schools, particularly in poor districts. Has “research” really shown that poverty and prejudice are irrelevant, that these barriers are easily overcome by attentive parents? Has the staff of the department failed to read Senator Daniel P. Moynihan’s recent Godkin lectures on the frightening actual decline of the family?

Throughout the first section of the pamphlet, on the home, the department reveals that it is either cynical or hopelessly unaware of demographic trends. “What Works” refers to parents in the plural. What of the growth of single-parent homes? What of families in which both parents work? What of parents who are semiliterate or not literate at all? What of the many parents who have neither the tradition nor inclination to help with schoolwork? What of those children who have no parents to speak of at all?

Before the booklet even discusses classrooms and schools, one senses that the authors have assumed a fairy-tale land where the nuclear family is intact, where adults are possessed of the leisure and desire to read to children, talk about the meaning of words, help kids count everyday objects, and draw. By focusing on the home and parents in such idyllic and unrealistic terms, ''What Works” tries to render differences in income, class, and race--inequalities more within government’s power to mitigate in terms of education--irrelevant to the educational performance of children. ''Don’t blame us” is the implicit message.

Perhaps the authors share a conveniently fictional view of the past. Most of the immigrant children who did well in school in the early 20th century did not have parents who could read to them or assist them with their homework.

Another deception of ''What Works” can be found in the statistical comparisons of educational performance between the United States and foreign countries. There are two graphs that show the United States lagging behind other Western countries and Japan in student mathematical achievement. But nowhere is the unwitting reader--the nonprofessional lay person for whom this presumably straight-talking document is intended--told that most of these countries segregate children by ability into different tracks before the age groupings the data cover.

These graphs manipulate statistics. No other country has the United States’ commitment to reconcile excellence with equity, to educate close to 100 percent of its population in a common school system without cutting the majority off from attending a full academic high school through the 12th grade.

Perhaps the reason for this sleight of hand is that the authors are opposed to that historical American commitment. Is the reader supposed to conclude that trying to educate all our children to the highest possible level is too expensive and bad social policy? Are we now going to emulate less egalitarian societies to achieve better national scores, and follow Social Darwinists who believe that only those who show early results should be educated well? “What Works” reveals itself quickly as a piece of advertising for a very pointed social policy in education.

In the less overtly political areas of school and classroom practice, the authors avoid or trivialize the ills of the American school system. They want more testing, even though we know that testing and constant measurement can drive a school curriculum and not the other way around. For example, the kind of “brainstorming” approach to the teaching of writing that “What Works” seeks to encourage defies multiple-choice standardized testing.

The crucial area of the teaching of mathematics is oversimplified. The problems of mathematics teaching are not limited to arithmetic; geometry and the non intuitive ' uses of numbers in statistics and probability have been neglected. Getting away from a “cookbook,” formulaic approach to teaching science will require more than one page about “science in action.” Once again, where are the teachers who can teach this better approach to science? Who is going to pay for their training and retraining?

No doubt many “research findings” in this document are, by themselves, reasonable. Memorizing is a wonderful and all-too- forgotten tool of learning. Estimating is indeed an important skill. Language and history are two of the most important things students should learn. That now-abused phrase “cultural literacy” represents a noble goal all too absent from adult society in America. But even though ''What Works” tries to bolster its credibility by sprinkling its text with ornamental snippets, often taken out of context, from Plato, Montaigne, and even Confucius, the authors display not enough concern for non-Western cultures about which “literacy” among Americans is sorely needed.

These criticisms are just a sample of how ''What Works” ignores the real conditions in which students try to learn and teachers try to teach, and therefore falsifies what needs to be done. We must compete with other nations. But we must also strengthen our unique democratic commitment to equality in education. In the U.S., educational excellence requires a much larger per-capita investment than that faced by countries without our essential democratic commitment.

''What Works"--by manipulating facts and realities and by seeking to appropriate the noble and nonpartisan rhetoric of high educational goals and standards for a narrow political and ideological purpose--may prove destructive to honest research and practice in service of making excellence a reality in all our classrooms.