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May 5, 2008

what works in education

The federally funded program called "Reading First" recently received a poor evaluation. The American Prospect's Ezra Klein comments, "This fits into the larger pattern in education reform efforts which is that most ideas fall short of expectations. Vouchers have found themselves in a similar decline, and now they're losing support even among conservatives." Kevin Drum from Washington Monthly picks up the theme: "This is one of the reasons I don't blog much about education policy even though it's an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don't know how to teach kids any better than we used to."

There are at least three ironies here:

1. Two major liberal bloggers take the failure of a program that conservatives love as evidence that nothing works in education. (Many comments on their blogs note this irony, as well.)

2. Many progressive educators dislike formal experiments that have control groups and quantitative outcome-measures. They associate those methods with the Bush administration, and they fear that holistic and interactive forms of education will suffer if so evaluated. However, it was because Reading First was subjected to a rigorous quantitative evaluation that we know it doesn't work.

3. Conservatives seem to love the phonics approach embodied in Reading First and distrust "whole language" methods, which involve teaching reading through literature. I can't understand why this has become a left/right issue. Evangelical Protestants should be enthusiastic about reading narratives.

Leaving ironies aside, the big issue is: What do we know about what works in education? If you want to see the results of evaluations that use randomized control groups, you can check out the Feds' What Works Clearinghouse. I think that's a worthwhile offering, but it's far from the whole story. It would not be surprising if few curricular packages--off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped programs--made a big difference to kids. After all, education is mostly about relationships: between teachers and their classes, among students, between teachers and parents, and between teachers and administrators. We know that some teachers consistently produce better results than others, holding other factors constant. That's partly because their relationships are better. (They're not necessarily nicer or friendlier, but they are more effective at working with children and other adults in their contexts.) We also know that the level of community participation in schools makes a difference. These factors matter, but they are hard to influence through national policy.

Certainly, any parent knows that some schools are better than others, and some teachers are better than others; and it's not just because of money or demographics. That means that some things work in education. Yet simple mandates and programs are unlikely to make schools better, because they don't influence relationships. And formal experiments that evaluate programs are most likely to show disappointing results.

May 5, 2008 4:47 PM | category: education policy | Comments



My impression is that research on education is terrible. My wife got a Masters degree at Columbia's Teachers College, and I was frankly amazed at what passes for knowledge on education. Things don't seem much better out here at Stanford (although I haven't really looked).

The problem is larger than just an aversion to experimental or quantitative methods; it lacks methodology or theoretical basis. Most of the research reminds me of codification of conventional wisdom.

I hope my impression is wrong, but the lack of progress in the field seems to corroborate my view.

- Mike

May 5, 2008 7:06 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Michael Weiksner

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