Perils of the Pendulum Resisting Education's Fads
Teachers call it the "reform du jour," and for many, it's the biggest challenge at the start of any school year. That's when the latest idea for how to improve student performance kicks in.Skip to next paragraph
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In the 1970s, it was the open classroom, which knocked out the walls between classes to create flexible space and make learning more fun. Soon, carpenters were tapping away at new walls to get the noise level back down.
In the 1980s, many districts tucked away the phonics books to make way for "whole-language" instruction, which emphasized context and the personal value of reading.
The new books were engaging, but many kids weren't learning to read. Teachers were ordered to dig out the flash cards.
The 1990s brought down new mandates to teach to individual "learning styles - despite a lack of consensus on how to measure learning styles, or whether it is better to teach to a learning style or to help students overcome it.
Even critics note these ideas have valid points. But they were often adopted without data - without balancing the claims of competing teaching techniques - and then taken to extremes. That resulting pendulum swings are prompting a reevaluation of how educators adopt new practices in the classroom.
"There's a very substantial metamorphosis of the culture of education going on in this country - a new demand for research-based educational practices," says Douglas Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, which is based in Eugene, Ore.
Education isn't the only field to cope with fads, but it has features that make it especially vulnerable. A large number of unjuried professional journals let inadequate research pass uncritically. Key decisionmakers, like urban superintendents, typically hold jobs for three years and feel pressed to show results fast.
Educational research is often poorly funded as well, and the federal government and foundations often lean toward what is new, rather than what is proven effective.
"The gap between the research community and the practitioner community is much wider than what you'd find between practicing engineers and physicists," says John Bruer, president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, which supports educational and biomedical research.
Whether early readers should be taught whole language or phonics is a case in point. Last March, the National Research Council released a landmark report that announced a truce, or "pax lectura," in the nation's "reading wars." The report urged an end to take-no-prisoner swings from one method to another: Good reading instruction includes both, it argued.
"People in the field of reading are very passionate about correcting the errors that they see their predecessors as having made. The field looks faddish because people have gone too far down a reasonable road," says Catherine Snow, who chaired the National Research Council's report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children."
"Many state boards of education had been losing faith in publishers and the education establishment for telling them what to do," she adds.
A key recommendation of this report is that schools require that publishers provide data to support claims of the effectiveness of their products.
"The reading wars had eased off even before publication of this report. If they hadn't we could never have reached a consensus," Ms. Snow notes.
Barbara Grohe, this year's National Superintendent of the Year, lived through two decades of the reading wars as a former reading teacher. "There has been a tendency to go from one end of the continuum directly to the other end without stopping in between to find a balance," she says. "It's almost as if to make your point that one approach doesn't work, you need to go to the exact opposite."
Teaching to the brain?
Now, brain research is fueling a new generation of textbooks, curriculum kits, and visiting consultants. It's one of the most popular areas for in-service teacher training, experts say.
"Teachers are lapping this up like you would not believe," says Napa, Calif.-based consultant Pat Wolf, who works with schools in the United States and 35 other countries. "Brain research isn't just another fad that will pass. It gives us a scientific foundation for human learning."
But critics warn that there is very little quality control for the academic projects that many consultants are spinning out of it.
"We just don't know enough about how the brain works to make claims about brain-based curricula," says Mr. Bruer.