On Education and School Reform

There’s been some news recently in school reform circles centered around the opening of the Microsoft “School of the Future” in Philadelphia this fall. One such story is this one at the excellent blog and discussion site of John C. Dvorak. There, in the comments, you can already see the debate among the public-at-large about the effectiveness of school reform measures. This is a common and distrubing trend in talks about school reform. The uneducated public has little knowledge about what makes schools work and what doesn’t. What they have is “feelings” and articles from newspapers and magazines that are often incorrect and unreliable. Anyway, I wrote the following response in an attempt to encourage people to research and understand the problem before complaining and making foolish statements. If you’re interested in this sort of thing a must-read is “The Academic Achievement Challenge” by renowned educator Jeanne S. Chall. I don’t agree with a lot of her conclusions in the book, but it’s a great place to start the discussion.

As someone in the middle of an Education PhD program I have a few things to say. I don’t want to get into a long debate about this because I simply don’t have the time. First, I have read some about these Microsoft schools but I’m no expert. That said, the general public (and the politicians that cater to their wants) knows very little about education. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of research about how students learn best and the best methods for teaching. The problem with implementation is at least twofold.

First, things like interdisciplinary learning work well, very well in fact. Here the implementation problem is generally cost. To do interdisciplinary learning well teachers of different subjects need to meet on a daily basis for a considerable amount of time and have additional planning time to boot. In effect you reduce the amount teachers can actually spend in front of a class by a quarter, meaning you have to hire more teachers and thus spend more. This is not something that makes the public or politicians happy. If you stary cutting corners to try and do it anyway you end up with less than satisfactory results and no one is happy. I always say that education would be the most expensive thing for the government to provide if it was done right. If people knew how much it really cost to educate someone there would probably be calls for the end of public education and a serious debate about whether education is worth it, it costs that much.

Secondly, public perceptions of education are a barrier to improving it. There is not general public (or political) support to take research into the classroom and apply novel teaching methods. In addition to costing more things like interdisciplinary learning, more teamwork and not having to memorize useless facts and instead learning how to research and solve problems are not what the majority of people want taught in schools. Parents generally are unhappy to learn their child no longer needs to memorize massive amounts of information such as dates and names which can be easily looked up. Even in the comments here you’ll find that people will debate what students should memorize vs. not. The effect is that novel teaching methods are usually undermined and not put fully into place making them less effective. The mentality is often that “I learned all this stuff in school, why aren’t my children” without the realization that there has been a paradigm shift in the world and what was appropriate in the past may no longer be appropriate.

My personal opinion is that people are far too open about criticizing education when they have little knowledge about how the education works. If you’re serious about wanting to make a change in education (or anything else for that matter) and want to criticize it you should spend a copious amount of time studying the research and not the junk you see in the newspapers and magazines, I mean real research studies published in refereed journals. If you start wanting to make changes before you understand why things are the way they are you end up wasting a lot of energy and can potentially cause a lot of students to be ill-prepared for their futures.

Comments are closed.