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This Week's COWAbunga Award

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This week's "Comment of the Week Award" goes to TangoMan for his insightful explanation of why education has followed a different trajectory than medicine in its use of evidence, and what role education schools might play in addressing this problem. I would add that superintendents and administrators are bigger culprits than teachers, who are simply ordered to implement their instructional whims. The full comment is here, and an excerpt highlighting the central themes is below:
Here's my hypothesis - teachers don't think like scientists. They're more idealists at heart. They envision a certain role for themselves and they gravitate to approaches that reinforce their idealism. (...)

Secondly, the action of "doing something" is preferable to waiting for valid methods to develop, especially when there is a presumption that teachers and methods are all that stand between equal educational outcomes and wide-ranging gaps in performance. The fact that this model of how things works is divergent from reality is little consequence to idealists, for they're driven, when push comes to shove, by belief, not evidence, and that's why they continue to believe, even with little supporting evidence, that the solution is just around the corner and will eventually be found and can then be easily implemented.

Further, it's assumed that no harm is done by implementing invalid methods because the teacher doesn't mean to cause harm, as though good intention will inoculate the students from bad practices. (...)

Any solution has to start at ground zero, that is, the point where all teachers find common origin, education schools. These institutions must inculcate skepticism into the practitioners of teaching and those who make careers of research....More teachers need to adopt the practice of skepticism and chuck overboard the role of advocate for approaches that appeal to them and the role of progressive educator who is intent on implementing the cutting edge of new approaches (where more emphasis is given to the notion of progress than efficacy.) They need to learn to look at a new approach and find that their first instinct should be to tear it apart, rather than to embrace the approach and try to give it a chance....To put it simply, less embracing and more skepticism needs to be at the core of the education school experience.
10 Comments

A thoughtful comment, to be sure. One thing I'd note, though, is that it is no longer the case that all teachers "find common origin" in ed schools. The proliferation of alternate routes into the occupation of teaching has made ed schools just one of the sites where teachers' orientations to skepticism and inquiry are forged.

My colleague David Labaree of Stanford University--how many cool people can I know?--has written about the challenges of preparing teachers to be researchers in his book, The Trouble with Ed Schools (Yale, 2004). Part of the problem is the positioning of schools of education in the institutional landscape of American higher education. But Labaree also argues that there are fundamental tensions in the worldviews and cultural orientations of teachers and researchers that emerge from "the distinctive problems of practice they encounter in their respective roles." To take on the orientations that might enable teachers to display the spirit of skepticism and inquiry that TangoMan and others seek, teachers must shift from the normative to the analytical; from the personal to the intellectual; from the particular to the universal; and from the experiential to the theoretical.

My own take on this issue is in Neumann, Anna, Aaron M. Pallas, & Penelope L. Peterson. (1999). “Preparing educational practitioners to practice educational research.” Pp. 247-288 in Issues in Education Research: Problems and Possibilities, edited by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Lee Shulman. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

I agree that TangoMan makes some important points. As a teacher and graduate student, I see many k-12 colleagues who don't think like scientists and show very little interest in understanding research. So many teachers out there are just struggling to keep their heads above water that it can be extremely tempting to blindly jump on board with new approaches in favor of "doing something" over waiting for validation.

I also agree with eduwonkette's point that the problem often originates from the top down. I have known many teachers who are all too happy to latch on to the latest instructional fad forced on them by administrators. If they don't need to think critically about what and how they teach, that just makes their job easier.

However, I would argue that idealism also has an important place in teaching. As crucial as it is to implement proven methods, teachers must be ever-vigilant of the hidden messages they are sending. Even if an instructional program has been verified by the standards of scientifically-based research, it is not necessarily best for children. In spite of the need for teachers to think like scientists, teaching will always be a values enterprise. Proven instructional programs must still be viewed skeptically regarding the moral and ethical concerns they raise.

I will give an example to clarify my point. I used to teach in California at a school attended by about 99% immigrant students speaking English as a second language. California happens to be one of a handful of states that have mandated English immerision literacy instruction for such students over a bilingual approach. The school in which I taught had adopted the Success For All (SFA) literacy program as a means to comply wtih the state mandate for English immersion as it slowly phased out all Spanish-speaking classrooms. This curriculum is not designed for English language learners and is insensitive to their unique challenges. SFA is the same program that Jonathan Kozol railed against in his recent book Shame of a Nation, but it also happens to be supported by existing research. Despite this proven effectiveness, a moral concern loomed large. What happens when teachers and schools ignore, devalue, and outlaw students' cultural and linguistic heritage? What happens when we force our culture on them as the best and only option?

I recognize that this example could be said to apply more to the bilingual/English immersion debate than any real discussion of the SFA curriculum, but the point I'm trying to make is that sometimes idealistic teachers must choose against research-proven approaches for the sake of their students' dignity and humanity. There is research to support English immersion, sure, but is it ever okay to choose an approach, no matter how much research supports it, that demoralizes students?

Maybe it's just me, but in my experience the problem was the exact opposite. Teachers were hesitant to adopt changes and, instead, clung to the methods they knew. The teachers I knew were exceedingly skeptical of all the changes they were told to make and resented anybody who told them to make them. Not all teachers, mind you, but certainly the majority.

TangoMan,

How much teaching experience do you have?

When I hear someone who is so confident in using the terms "valid" and "invalid," they usually are armchair educators. In my experience, anyone can talk a good game, and its the ones who are so sure that they alone are right who "don't know what they don't know." In my experience, effective teachers develop modesty as they struggle with the real world.

While eduwonkette is off enjoying the holiday, skoolboy's going to take the opportunity to play air traffic controller. (And if I'm overstepping my bounds here, I'm sure the relevant parties will let me know.) Not much to be gained, in my view, by posing the question of TangoMan's teaching experience; John Thompson's critique of TangoMan's terminology doesn't really depend on whether TangoMan has teaching experience, and John can certainly draw on his own experience as a teacher in formulating that critique.

When I hear someone who is so confident in using the terms "valid" and "invalid," they usually are armchair educators.

Or scientists.

Despite this proven effectiveness, a moral concern loomed large. What happens when teachers and schools ignore, devalue, and outlaw students' cultural and linguistic heritage? What happens when we force our culture on them as the best and only option?

What happens? We signal to the students that schools are institutions devoted to educating students so as to remove as many obstacles as possible on their road in life. Simultaneously we signal to the students that the mission of schools is not to bolster their ethnic self-esteem, that's the job of their parents, their extended family, and their personal ethnic associations.

On another point, when one looks at policies and approaches that are evidence-based one is making a judgment on mostly objective grounds. When one looks at issues like bolstering ethnic self-esteem one is making a judgment on subjective grounds, that is the judgment is being made on the basis of a belief that boosting ethnic awareness is a good thing, rather than a bad thing, and that belief is for more open to challenge than is the case with evidence-based reasoning.

One thing I'd note, though, is that it is no longer the case that all teachers "find common origin" in ed schools.

This is true, but I lack data on the proportion of teachers who rely on these alternative entry vectors.

I would add that superintendents and administrators are bigger culprits than teachers, who are simply ordered to implement their instructional whims.

I agree very strongly with this criticism. The damage these folks do is compounded by a few factors:

1.) If they have teaching experience, it may have no more relevance to a particular problem being addressed than that of someone completely removed from the realm of teaching. That is, not all teachers run into every problem that can be experienced in a classroom. For instance, a superintendent could have risen through the ranks as a teacher in an stellar district, never encountered much racial diversity, and then transitioned into administration. Later in her career she is a superintendent of a district with a large racial achievement gap and she relies on the "theories" she embraced in her teaching days and mandates new policies based on her insight and experience and she is confident in her decision due to her experience as a teacher.

2.) The incentive structure for administrators is geared towards "doing something" rather than "doing something effective." The whirlwind of activity that ensues from a decision to implement a new approach presents the appearance of busy activity, fills the day with planning meetings, consultations, etc - so they're clearly justifying their job by engaging in all of these activities and this has a better appearance than the alternative of making incremental improvements which don't have the promise of spectacular gains.

3.) The cost to failure is minimal. If an approach fails then they simply begin another iteration of point #2, and the meetings and consultations begin again.

4.) The most misguided aspect is the nurturing of their own pet "theories" that they've been clinging to as they climbed the career ladder to the point where they now have the authority to implement the ideas they laid out in their M.Ed thesis or their D.Ed dissertation 25 years ago. They care little that their ideas have received scarce validation attention, they proceed towards implementation on the basis of their faith in their own unique insight and they rely on their authority to drive the implementation down to the front ranks.

skoolboy,

As much a I love your work, I think you are off base for two reasons. Firstly, as you indicate I made a narrow point. I didn't discredit everyone who studies education without having actual teaching experience. Life has plenty of ways of teaching modesty. In fact, notice how TangoMan replied:

"When I hear someone who is so confident in using the terms "valid" and "invalid," they usually are armchair educators.

Or scientists."

I, at least, gained little from his cryptic response.

Secondly, my academic field of history is very comparable to your field, and I want presidents to read history. I don't want presidential historians to prescribe presidential policies. I can tell you how I, as an academic, viewed public education before teaching, and what I learned in actual schools, but that would be lenghty. So, to oversimplify, I question an education theorist who doesn't welcome discussions with actual practioners.

TangoMan, I strongly agree with you statement:

"I would add that superintendents and administrators are bigger culprits than teachers, who are simply ordered to implement their instructional whims.

I agree very strongly with this criticism. The damage these folks do is compounded by a few factors:

1.) If they have teaching experience, it may have no more relevance to a particular problem being addressed than that of someone completely removed from the realm of teaching. That is, not all teachers run into every problem that can be experienced in a classroom."

That's the problem with policies prompted by NCLB. They applied "best practices" that increased performance in low poverty and magnet schools to turnaround high poverty neighborhood schools.

That policy didn't even conform to Logic 101. Again, they didn't know what they didn't know.

I still haven't heard a response to my point. I have problems with policy analysts, theorists, scientists, preachers, politicians, and others who are so all-fired sure that they know what is "valid" and "invalid." In fact, if more people spent more time teaching in urban schools, the wisdom they gained would be beneficial in all sorts of endeavors. But no, I did not say that teaching is the only way to learn humility.

I have problems with policy analysts, theorists, scientists, preachers, politicians, and others who are so all-fired sure that they know what is "valid" and "invalid."

John, your criticism isn't specific enough for me to discern whether we're dealing with a definitional issue or not, so on the off-chance that we are, here is one of many primers on the web which define how I, skoolboy and eduwonkette are using the term "valid." Being a teacher on the front line doesn't grant one special insight into program validity, especially when you're deeply involved in the dynamic under study, rather than an outside observer who is unable to influence the factors at play. The insights you gain from your position are valuable but they're not really privileged on questions of validity.

I may have lost some brain cells since I entered the classroom, but I still know that there are both scientific and everyday definitions of the word “valid.” Look at the context:

"Secondly, the action of "doing something" is preferable to waiting for valid methods to develop."

Sure sounds like you are advocating a practical argument. But I don't know how practical it is to play Hamlet for a few decades until we can translate valid scientific conclusions into flesh and blood reality.

You seem to be making another real world statement when you referred to "implementing invalid methods." How are you going to produce a falsifiable argument that practices are invalid unless you are going to engage in a dialogue with practitioners?

That brings us to the quality of the dialogue. How much will you learn from an exchange with teachers where you make such sweeping statements condemning us?

What if we mutually disarmed and veteran teachers like me stopped responding, and you stopped the attacks on us? Someday, empirical studies will unlock untold knowledge. Today, we need to be better consumers of research.

Again, I'd cite my academic field where we don't look for "lessons of history" to produce scripts for living in our world. As we say, "history may not repeat itself but it rhymes." Take a look at the union-bashing of the 70s that accelerated the de-industrialization of America, wiped out the family and social fabric of huge areas and created much of the educational disaster we see today. And then look at the Michelle Rhee's who believe whole-heartedly in the science of accountability. I hear a lot of rhymes.

Perhaps I sound defensive, but I really don't regret a thing about being one of "the hicks of the professional world." I'm not going to play "the teacher card" when social scentists analyze education on a macro level. That would be absurd. But to deny the importance of teachers' practical knowledge when analyzing education on a micro level is equally absurd.

Having witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the divide and conquer policies that destroyed the lives of industrial workers, I won't remain silent when the same strategies are applied to teachers. I'm going to defend my fellow teachers from blanket attacks on our competence and our integrity. (at least you didn't attack us on that front.) I don't want a "tit fot tat" argument. Neither do I want to sound like a jerk playing "the teacher card," but sometimes I can't help it. Spend enough time in a hardcore inner city high school and you'll realize why we can't allowed ourselves to get punked.

John,

This is not a union issue but an issue of determining what works in schools and what doesn't.

TangoMan's argument that teachers need to be skeptical and research based would be great if we had valid, quality data about what works and what doesn't. We do not.

It is easy to (but mistaken) to heap critism onto the backs of the teachers. They are, after all, on the front lines of education and their mistakes/successes are directly felt by their students.

There is no field that relies solely upon the practitioners of that field to improve. But to ignore the experience of the practitioners rarely results in a positive outcome.

Example: In medicine, practicing doctors rarely come up with their own improvements. But scientists and research doctors do need to work with practicing clinicians to see if the new therapies work.

So too in teaching. What teacher has the time, inclination, financial support and network to fully develop a new approach to teaching, validate scientifically if it makes a difference in student learning AND communicate it to the greater teaching community?

But to ignore the experience of teachers in evaluating new ideas (as is too typical in our current school system) greatly reduces the likelyhood that any changes will actually be an improvement.

The "just do something" approach is akin to NCLB. And how successful was that towards improving our students' education? As much as it feels good to try anything, the more effort that is given to schools that end up in failure, the more weary, worn-out and cynical teachers, politicians and the public become. Defeatism becomes the modus operandi.

To make improvements in education, we would need to somebody (researcher, organization, state officials, etc...) work with teachers, define what changes they would like to make in schools, define ahead of time what "success" would be, test it out in schools and determine if students met their a priori definition of success. Teachers can not do this alone. But without teachers, how could this applied research ever be carried out?

In medicine, there is a very specific process for therapies to become approved: A new idea has 3 levels of establishing scientific validity.) The FDA (a government agency whose sole mission is to determine the validity of the studies) has to determine whether the new therapy works or not. It is only after this extensive process that doctors are allowed to use the therapy.

The benefit of the system is confidence. The public has confidence that what the doctor is prescribing will actually work because it was approved by the FDA.

In our current school system, no one has any confidence that what teachers do will work or not. Scientifically validated studies allow the general public to understand and relate to the process and not just heap blame upon the backs of the teachers.

What teacher would not not rather feel respected and supported than blamed for all the ills of our schools. Scientific applied research can provide the confidence in teaching practice to establish that support. But our schools have *nothing* in place now to generate or evaluate quality applied research.

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