Perils of the Pendulum Resisting Education's Fads
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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
* Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org