WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
"Teachers and principals are interested in doing a better job for their kids, and brain research is a very seductive way to do this. But teachers and principals aren't given the training to read a research article critically," he adds.
Some practices that claim to derive from brain research are already under siege. For example, parents in California and Utah recently won lawsuits against local school districts for practicing "cranial manipulations" on children to improve reading, says Mr. Carnine.
"This practice has no basis in brain research, and can actually harm children," he notes.
Parents and teachers groups who see the costs of fads close up were among the first to develop their own standards. For example, the American Federation of Teachers, the No. 2 teachers union, started a summer institute to train teachers to identify research-grounded techniques and question fads and "quick-fix" in-service programs. Meeting in Washington July 24 to Aug. 2, many teacher-trainers had horror stories of their own encounters with educational fads.
"Typically, teachers get two days of training in the latest fad and then they're told they'll be evaluated in two weeks. It's chicanery. It's not what you need to be a qualified professional," says Marcia Berger, co-director of the AFT summer institute.
Ms. Berger dates her own union involvement to an in-service teacher-training session in 1984, "when 600 kids were sent home from school so teachers could watch a consultant demonstrate how patterns and rhythms in tap dancing could improve language ability.... It was my all-time low as a teacher," she says.
Not all new ideas are fads - and, by definition, great ideas start somewhere, and reliable data take time to develop.
"It's very important to consult the research base. However, it is possible that we may have to move into new areas without a research base or else no change will happen," says Gary Marx, spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators.
One solution to that dilemma is for superintendents to consult broadly with teachers before launching a new program, and to make sure that relevant research is shared broadly and understood.
"I'm very skeptical of quick fixes. Every few years there is a quick fix or a cute idea that people jump to. Sometimes that happens out of frustration of parents and educators because they haven't been able to make the growth they wanted," says Carol Grosse Peck, who has been superintendent of the Alhambra School District in Phoenix for the past 13 years.
Her district developed a national reputation because its students, largely from poor families, consistently achieve at or above national norms. "When we look at the new ideas coming down the line, I match them up with what I know works from my years as a teacher and an administrator. Then I look at what they would replace. Sometimes it's not that the fad is harmful, it's the loss of the instruction and the program it replaces."
The Washington-based Evaluation of Research on Educational Approaches, founded with the support of unions, principals and superintendents, aims to help educators make that call. It is about to issue its first report evaluating the results of programs for children in poverty in October.
"Professional development for teachers has been very hit-and-miss. Some gurus of the month do some good, some do no good at all, some do positive harm," says the McDonnell Foundation's Bruer.
HOW TO FAD-PROOF YOUR SCHOOL
The key to fad-proofing your school is to look for things that work and avoid those that don't. Here are suggestions from some top superintendents and teachers:
* Remember that the most entertaining consultant does not always have the best ideas.
* Textbook publishers or consultants rarely provide data or evidence that their materials or in-service programs are effective. Insist on it.
* Take a hard look at the research base behind a proposal: What's the evidence that students will learn more under the new program than under the program it is replacing? What is the experimental design of the study and how strong is the evidence? How similar are students in this study to those in your classroom?
* Is the method of teaching described in sufficient detail that it can be replicated in the classrooms. Extremely talented teachers can do wonders with about any program; you need to be sure that a program is effective even when not brilliantly executed.
* Move slowly and include teachers in researching, deciding, and implementing a new program.
* Start new programs on a sample group and test the results before expanding to the whole district.
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