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Education Research and Its Discontents

To the Editor:

Your special report on education research hits the nail squarely on the head when it points out that teachers tend to ignore the results of research at least partly because "teachers have never been trained to pay attention to it" ("The State of Research: New Priorities, Focus Sought for Research," June 23, 1999).

I have been on the faculty of a number of colleges of education since the fall of 1974 and have continually been dismayed to see faculty members who train future teachers not merely ignoring the research literature, but actually carefully explaining to their students that the research in our field is useless. These students are constantly told that the only way to learn anything about effective teaching is through experience in actual classrooms, through trial and error.

The curriculum in undergraduate programs in teacher education virtually never contains study in searching for and understanding the research literature so that it may be used to inform teaching. While programs on the master's-degree level usually allow for a single course in research and bibliography due to pressures from accreditation agencies, these courses are generally viewed by faculty members as a bothersome waste of time that could be best applied to additional methods courses.

As long as faculty members who prepare future teachers look at the educational process with such an anti-intellectual bias, people on the front lines of education will fail to apply the results of our research. It is time to reform teacher education programs--not to include less intellectual vigor and more "fieldwork," as has been the case in this current spate of "reforms," but to infuse them with the vigor we see in programs carried out by our colleagues in other fields.

Leonard B. Bliss
College of Education
Florida International University
Miami, Fla.

To the Editor:

Your State of Research article gave me pause for thought ("The State of Research: New Priorities, Focus Sought for Research," June 23, 1999). We are almost 20 years into the present reform movement and still have no sure-fire cure for what ails our schools. As Spencer Foundation President Patricia Albjerg Graham said, "It's proven more difficult to help all kids learn than we thought it would be."

Why isn't education research more like medical research? The answer to this question jumped off the page at me. Studies in medicine involve afflictions that are essentially the same for all humans. If you find a vaccination for measles, it works on everyone.

This is not the case in education. Every child in a class learns in a different way. Some of the learning differences are slight, and others are quite significant. Think about all the possible combinations: Some of the children are boys, and the others are girls; some are "right brained" and others "left brained"; some learn visually, others orally, and still others kinesthetically; some speak a different language; some come from disadvantaged homes; some have learning disabilities to varying degrees (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); and all have a predominance of one kind of intelligence, according to Howard Gardner, with a mixture of the remaining ones.

In permutation and combination theory, if there are five qualities and each one has two possible conditions, there would be 32 different combinations. Think of all the learning qualities of the children in our classes, and all the possible conditions for each quality. This astronomical number of different combinations is what we have staring us in the face every time we step in front of a class.

Perhaps the answer is that there is no one cure-all for the educational condition. Teachers must be prepared to teach, facilitate, and present information in many different ways. A daunting task, but one that strives to reach every child.

Gordon R. Rode
Sullins Academy
Bristol, Va.

A Core Curriculum for All Teachers

To the Editor:

For the past year, this newspaper has devoted a number of excellent articles to the state of teaching in the United States. Recently, we learned that yet another committee will be formed to determine what is needed to improve teacher licensing ( "NRC Study Will Track States' Teacher-Licensing Efforts," June 23, 1999).

With all due respect to this committee and its predecessors, I submit that it is possible--without yet another study documenting the deficits of teachers--to improve significantly the quality of teaching throughout the United States. I propose that all teachers, present and future, be required to complete a solid academic curriculum, equivalent to that of a well-prepared high school graduate:

  • Four years of mathematics: algebra, geometry, algebra-trigonometry, and calculus;
  • Three years of science: biology, chemistry, and physics;
  • Four years of English, to include world literature, English literature, and American literature;
  • Four years of a foreign language;
  • Four years of history and geography, including U.S. history and geography, world history and geography, U.S. government, and economics; and
  • One year of art and one year of music.

The benefits of this curriculum are twofold. For elementary teachers, it would provide the broad knowledge base which they desperately need (and presently lack) in order to teach the many subjects required in a self-contained classroom. For secondary teachers, who often are assigned outside their specializations, this background would assure minimally that they are as well-prepared as the students they teach.

Outside our profession, people assume that teachers are knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. Their expectation is similar to their experience with accountants, doctors, lawyers, or other specialists: Professionals know their fields and are competent to provide specialized advice and counsel.

Yet, in public schools, the exact opposite is often the case, particularly at the elementary level. Our children learn mathematics and science from well-meaning teachers who are skillful in classroom management and human relations, but typically have minimal knowledge of the major concepts, skills, and structure of these disciplines.

Unbelievably, we refuse to recognize this knowledge gap, preferring instead to form numerous committees on teacher preparation or entangle ourselves in endless arguments about subject matter vs. students, facts vs. problem-solving, supply and demand, and a hundred other irrelevancies rather than admit that our teachers are ill-prepared, lacking important knowledge about the disciplines they teach.

It is absolutely imperative that we require our teachers, present and future, to complete the equivalent of a solid high school college-preparatory curriculum, with four years of preparation in the academic disciplines. This is the first step. What follows can focus on methodology, advanced preparation, and other forms of professional development. But the point is that a strong academic background is the foundation of good teaching, and our refusal to acknowledge this simple and obvious truth results in continued inaction or piecemeal remedies for rectifying the deficiencies in our profession.

We have a choice: Continue to deal with issues peripheral to the knowledge deficits of teachers, or lead the way in substantive reform by requiring a liberal academic education for all those entrusted with the education of our children.

Joseph M. Appel
Retired Superintendent
Annandale, N.J.

In Retention Debate, Few See the Whole

To the Editor:

In your June 16, 1999, issue, two Commentary authors argued that retention is not a solution to poor performance or low achievement in school ("Retention Is No Way To Boost Reading," June 16, 1999). These writers and others (particularly academics) are like the blind men exploring the elephant--few are looking at the complete problem. To make an informed decision on retention, social promotion must be studied also. And data have to be disaggregated by social class, gender, and race.

Basically, the problem that both retention and social promotion are intended to address is the failure to learn what was taught during the school year. For many African-American boys, placement in special education has now replaced retention and social promotion as the most prevalent remedy. But the unpleasant fact of school life today is this: The student who does not keep pace with the instructional program of his grade or subject will face retention, social promotion, or referral to special education. Now, which will we choose?

My personal position is that not one of these strategies works. But lacking in discussions of the issue has been any attempt to identify appropriate strategies for eliminating retention, social promotion, and referral to special education as means of dealing with the ineffective delivery of instruction.

Here are a few well-worn ideas that we have yet to implement:

(1) Expansion of early-childhood-education programs;

(2) Expansion of teacher-professional-development programs, especially around the teaching of reading;

(3) Stabilization of the school system, for example, through negotiated contracts, building repair and construction, and assured financial health;

(4) Provision of add-on programs giving more time and more people to tackle stubborn learning problems (summer school, before- and after-school programs, programs during lunch and recess);

(5) Provision of more push-in services (aides and tutors) to enforce inclusion and meet the needs of students falling behind;

(6) Better-prepared teachers who have high expectations, believe that they can make a difference, and know how to address human variation in learning;

(7) More principals committed to providing inspiring, supportive leadership;

(8) Systems of accountability that track progress and identify problem areas;

(9) Better pay for teachers and principals, especially in schools located in low-income census zones characterized by crime, violence, and poverty;

(10) Longer school days for planning, professional development, and shared decisionmaking;

(11) The integration of students' lives, histories, and cultures into daily lessons; and

(12) More technology, materials, and supplies.

Must we concentrate only on the elephant's tail?

Barbara A. Sizemore
Professor Emerita
DePaul University
Chicago, Ill.

Environmental Facts Were Not Complete

To the Editor:

Kathleen deBettencourt's Commentary certainly presented a biased and incomplete view of the facts of environmental education ("Learning the Facts of Life About Planet Earth," July 14, 1999).

The North American Association for Environmental Education is the professional association of environmental educators. Earlier this year, the NAAEE released "Excellence in EE--Guidelines for Learning (K-12)." These guidelines set expectations for performance and achievement in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, and suggest a framework for effective and comprehensive environmental education programs and curricula. They also demonstrate how environmental education can be used to meet standards set by the traditional disciplines, such as science and social studies, and to give students opportunities to synthesize knowledge and experience across the disciplines.

"Guidelines for Learning" is the sixth publication from the NAAEE's National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education. Initiated nearly 10 years ago, the project has included thousands of reviewers in developing background research, materials guidelines, a three-volume bibliography of reviewed resources for educators, and the learner guidelines. If the textbook publishers would embrace the materials guidelines, we would eliminate the sources of misinformation cited by Ms. deBettencourt.

The "Guidelines for Learning" are the standards she calls for--fully cross-referenced and correlated to the national standards in science, math, social studies, English language arts, history, economics, geography, civics, and government. By her omission of the excellence-project materials, Ms. deBettencourt does a disservice to the field of environmental education, to your readers, and to the students they strive to serve.

Michelle Mauthe Harvey
Vice President for Education
National Environmental Education & Training Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Panaceas for One, Panaceas for All

To the Editor:

In its Science section of July 13, 1999, The New York Times reported that 200 medical students and residents in Philadelphia-area hospitals listened to tape recordings of "characteristic sounds heard through the stethoscope in patients with a variety of lung diseases." But they were only able to accurately identify the illness about 50 percent of the time. And, according to the story, a recent study in Milwaukee found that a year after a special course in taking blood pressure, "95 of 100 medical students were doing it incorrectly."

This and other evidence cited in the article clearly suggest that our system of medical education is failing. Therefore, it's time we took a page from the public school education reform movement and began to offer vouchers to medical students and encouraged the establishment of charter medical schools and started firing university presidents.

Panaceas for one should be panaceas for all.

Edmund Janko
New York, N.Y.

Tech Support: Focus Business Help on Teaching and Learning

To the Editor:

Gary J. Beach's "What Are You Doing Labor Day?" (June 23, 1999) reinforced my skepticism about some corporate approaches to school reform. Major themes of this approach, as suggested by Mr. Beach, are that technology is the only way (not one way) schools can improve, and that the purpose of schools is to produce workers who will ensure "America's future competitiveness"--whatever that is.

Mr. Beach draws three parallels between companies and schools through the following questions, and in so doing outlines his message:

"(1) Could your company compete in its industry with technology akin to what you see installed at this school?"

"(2) Could your company compete in its industry if eight workers had to share one computer?"

"(3) Could your company compete if every office didn't have at least one telephone outlet for Internet access?"

I suspect that behind Mr. Beach's ideas is an ideology grounded in more-is-better thinking that defines progress and success as the accumulation of as many material goods as possible. This ideology insists that America be No. 1 in everything from athletics to automobile production to test-taking, or else be labeled a "loser"; believes technology is the only transforming tool necessary for achieving a fulfilling life; and maintains a hurried orientation that focuses only on tomorrow, never today, and on achieving the lifestyle goals of control, efficiency, and predictability.

Such mental constructs assume that the goals of learning and business are the same. They hold that individualization and competition result in heightened motivation, increased production, and enjoyment; that "work" and "training" are synonymous with "learning" and "education"; that companies and schools are parallel institutions; and that schools can be fixed only when the business community assumes a leadership role. These are dangerous assumptions, as they reduce learning to measurable bits of stuff that can be observed and counted, and schools to decontextualized places.

An important national goal, Mr. Beach says, would be for companies to provide $1.5 billion annually "for America's schools to study the deployment of or actively install technology in classrooms." Shouldn't study precede installation? Interestingly enough, the monitoring of this spending would not involve teachers, but rather an organization created by Mr. Beach. I often wonder why so many business and government leaders don't include teachers in school-related decisionmaking? Maybe teachers should begin to make policy and decisions about practice for medical doctors, managers of professional sports teams, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Given that many of the achievement problems in schools today are related to students' lack of positive skills in social interaction, their unmet human needs, and issues related to violence, doesn't it seem odd to be spending this kind of money on computer machinery and the Internet? How about using it to raise salaries to a living wage for our most important teachers--preschool teachers? That would say something about the culture's interest in its children's welfare.

At the risk of being labeled an educational dreamer, I ask, also, What if the $1.5 billion was used to secure equity in per-pupil spending for every K-12 student in America? This would authentically marry the terms equity and excellence. Or, why not use the money to support community schools and make real attempts--through increased use of counselors, social workers, and other community-based resources--to eliminate some of the underlying causes of low academic achievement?

A preliminary analysis of survey data taken from a medium-sized, Midwestern city has revealed that the majority of K-12 teachers there would spend any extra money they might have on classroom support staff and teaching materials. Very few of them mentioned computer technology. Because many of our school buildings are structurally unsafe, let alone ready to support learning, why not use some of the proposed $1.5 billion to ensure that all Americans attend safe, clean, and functional schools?

Simplistic solutions, such as providing more computers and increasing Internet access, have never worked for schools and will not work in the future. This is not to suggest that the private sector should not work with public schools. All of us are stakeholders when it comes to America's schoolchildren. But the goal of this partnership should not be applying the corporate model to the lives of 3rd grade children. It should be supporting the vital enterprise of teaching and learning.

As Jonathan Kozol has said, "The best reason to give a child a good school ... is so that child will have a happy childhood, ... and not so that it will help IBM compete with Sony."

Steve Grineski
Interim Dean
College of Education and Human Services
Moorhead State University
Moorhead, Minn.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 48-49

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Letters

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