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A Cognitive Scientist's Warning

Biological research on how the brain develops has little relevance for classroom educators right now, a leading proponent of cognitive science argues this month in the journal Educational Researcher.

John T. Bruer, the president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, criticizes what he considers a recent overemphasis on neuroscience studies in education publications, the news media, and statehouses. Some educators and scientists have suggested that findings from brain research may offer guidance for early-childhood education, classroom instruction, and parenting practices. ("Parenting on the Brain," Sept. 18, 1996.)

But Mr. Bruer argues that not enough is known about brain development, and that conclusions about what is known are being overgeneralized and misapplied.

"The neuroscience and education argument may be rhetorically appealing, but, scientifically, it's a bridge too far," he writes.

John T. Bruer

As an example, Mr. Bruer cites the argument that the preschool years are critical for learning because that is the period of greatest development of the brain's synapses--the connections between brain cells. But, he argues, that argument stems primarily from studies of rhesus monkeys, not humans.

What is more, other studies show that this period of flowering and pruning of synapses, known as synaptogenesis, occurs earlier in some parts of the brain than in others.

For example, synaptogenesis occurs very early in the visual cortex, which controls vision. But in the frontal cortex--responsible for planning, integrating information, and maintaining executive control--that growth period continues into adolescence. For other functions, synapses may continue to form and die off over the course of a lifetime.

Rather than look to neuroscience for clues to children's learning, Mr. Bruer says, educators should explore developments in cognitive science, which probes the mental processes that underlie observed behavior rather than the brain's biological underpinnings. The McDonnell Foundation supports research in cognitive science, much of it directly related to classroom applications.

"If we are looking for a basic science to help guide educational practice and policy," Mr. Bruer writes, "cognitive science is a much better bet."

Phonics vs. Whole Language

Debates over the best way to teach children to read have simmered in education journals for decades. ("Dealing With Dyslexia," in This Week's News.) An article scheduled to appear in the same issue of Educational Researcher stirs the pot once again.

Researchers Colin H. Sacks and John R. Mergendoller spent a year studying 11 kindergarten classrooms in Marin County, Calif. Six of the teachers were chosen because their philosophies of teaching reading reflected a traditional phonics orientation--emphasizing the relationship between letters and their corresponding sounds.

The other five teachers identified with the whole-language approach, which calls for exposing children to language-rich environments and allowing them to acquire reading skills at their own pace.

Much of what actually went on in both sets of classrooms over the course of a year was similar, the researchers found. But there were differences. Students in the whole-language classes, for example, spent more time looking at print not found in books, using invented spelling, and dictating stories.

In the phonics-oriented rooms, children more frequently looked at books on their own; copied letters, words, and sentences; and completed worksheets.

By the end of the year, students who had started out with low scores on standardized tests of reading ability showed the most improvement in the whole-language classrooms, the researchers found.

The higher-scoring children in both types of classrooms, on the other hand, demonstrated smaller reading gains over the course of the year than the low-achieving students.

Despite the apparent success of the whole-language approach with the poorest readers, the researchers argue that their findings do not clearly endorse either method of teaching reading. Rather, they suggest, different approaches may work best for children at different stages of reading development.

"As students become more familiar with language and master initial skills," the researchers write, "more focused attention toward specific reading strategies--on the part of both teachers and students--may be necessary to support continued reading development."

Mr. Sacks is a psychology instructor at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., and Mr. Mergendoller is the director of research and evaluation at the Buck Institute for Education in Novato, Calif.

The High Cost of Vouchers

Voucher proponents often argue that giving parents chits that they could use to send their children to any school of their choice would be one way to force public schools to shape up.

But Stanford University researcher and economist Henry Levin says the price tag for such a switch would be high: about $73 billion a year.

Mr. Levin, who is on leave from Stanford this year to serve as the Sachs lecturer at Teachers College, Columbia University, and co-researcher Cyrus Driver calculated that the additional costs of a voucher system would pop up in a number of areas.

First, they conclude, students who are now in private schools would probably want to use vouchers as well, adding $33 billion a year to the national cost of public education, roughly $270 billion a year in 1995.

Second, record-keeping systems would be needed to track students and their needs and to monitor and evaluate schools. Using the Social Security system as a model, the researchers figured that--even with the money saved by dismantling the present educational system--operating such a mammoth data system would cost another $2.5 billion annually.

Henry Levin

And, the researchers predict, getting all those children to the schools of their choice wouldn't be cheap. They estimate that the proportion of students who ride buses to school would rise from 60 percent to 80 percent under a voucher system. Tack on another $42 billion a year.

Then, they added in other expenses, such as the costs of making information available so that parents could make knowledgeable choices and of setting up a system to adjudicate disputes between parents and schools. Add another $3.6 billion.

Over all, they conclude, the extra expenses would add $1,500 a year per student to the cost of public education.

Mr. Levin is best known for his Accelerated Schools Project, a school improvement approach that calls for speeding up the curriculum for poor and low-achieving students. But he is also a longtime economist who decades ago suggested experimenting with tuition vouchers as a way to improve inner-city schools.

The cost estimates are part of an article about vouchers Mr. Levin is scheduled to publish in the summer issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. In that forthcoming es-say, he also analyzes existing research from this country and from abroad on other aspects of educational choice programs.

Though the cost estimates are sobering, Mr. Levin adds, that doesn't mean the current system shouldn't be changed.

"Nothing in this paper should give much comfort to those who might wish to defend the status quo," he writes in a postscript to the article. "In my view, considerable gains in educational efficiency are possible, whether vouchers are the answer or some other type of system reform."

Vol. 17, Issue 12, Page 27

Published in Print: November 12, 1997, as Research Notes
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An item in this column gave an incorrect citation for a reading study by Colin H. Sacks and John R. Mergendoller. The study is scheduled to appear in the winter issue of American Education Research Journal.

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