Why no large-scale testing of American education ideas?

Dec 6, 2013 by

Bruce Deitrick Price –

So much of modern, progressive education pretends to be based on big, profound insights and massive research.

More often, bits of theory and dabs of testing are taped together and presented to the world as a mighty fortress, which on proper examination turns out to be a house of cards.

The striking fact about education is how easy it would be to test one curriculum against another, one textbook against another, and so on. You could have 1000 students on the west side of a city compete against 1000 students on the east side. There are so many millions of K-12 students, it’s easy to create the equivalent groups, matched for gender, income, IQ, ethnic origin, or anything else you want to test. A few years later, you would know with confidence that program A is superior to program B or vice versa.

You have to wonder: why is this not done?

There seems to be no comparative testing throughout public education. More crucially, there seems to be no curiosity about what such testing would show. Apparently the Education Establishment knows its favorite theories and methods won’t show up well in testing.

Here is an interesting historical fact. John Saxon, the famous textbook author and publisher, routinely challenged the Education Establishment to engage in large-scale competitions. He offered to pay all expenses. He claimed that his books would beat the Reform Math materials “by an order of magnitude.” Guess what? The pretenders in charge of our public schools refused to accept Saxon’s challenge. It seems fair to say they tacitly acknowledged they would lose. (Even without this head-to-head testing, Saxon’s books were shown to be clearly superior because Saxon students signed up for further math courses at a much higher rate. They understood math and enjoyed math. Conversely, Reform Math ruins both ability and appreciation.)

So what do our official experts do instead of testing proposals in an empirical and scientific way? Basically, they concoct little ideas in little laboratories. Often, the ideas are nothing but truisms, something on the level of: if children know a little about X, they will more quickly be able to learn more about X. Different professors conduct experiments with small groups of children, and announce support for this or that aspect. The theory is propounded in ever more grandiose ways until finally every action the school takes must revolve around what students know about X. A million hours will be wasted assessing this trivial question.

Here is the common research pattern. Smith (2010) references Jones (2007), who had previously referenced Wilkens (2004). Finally, Henderson writes a book demonstrating that children learn more if they already know something, citing Wilkins, 2004; Jones, 2007; Smith, 2010. It seems as if a vast scaffolding of evidence supports this theory. You can imagine that young teachers or students in graduate school are suitably dazzled.

This example is similar to what happened in the case of Self-esteem. It’s a safe truism that if children feel good about themselves, they will be more successful in school. Does that need to be said? But the Education Establishment took this wisp of common sense, treated it as a theory that should rule the world, and used it to eliminate anything that might be difficult for anybody. (Some children can’t memorize multiplication tables? The obvious answer is that nobody should be required to do this task. Failure is just too painful and must be outlawed.)

The biggest hoax in American education was known as Look-say circa 1930 when it was introduced. The sophistry (that words could be memorized as diagrams) was not tested against phonics. In fact, what little testing there was showed that Look-say was a loser.

Years go by and Rudolf Flesch writes “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955. The reading wars were begun in earnest. The appropriate thing at that point was to conduct large-scale experiments. But such tests did not happen. Instead, the professors created a propaganda organization called the International Reading Association, whose job was to smash phonics and trash Flesch. They had their answer; and the task after that was to make everything conform to the answer they had already chosen

There are two striking points. Large-scale testing is easy to do. But it’s hardly done at all. Apparently our Education Establishment selects its winners and losers in back rooms, like banana republic dictators, and then creates window dressing to justify the picks.

At this moment the Education Establishment is trying to push Common Core through, with dozens of little gimmicks hidden inside of it, none of which have been subjected to proper testing. It’s time for education to be far more scientific. Curricula should be carefully verified in large-scale test. Let’s find out what actually works, for a change.

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  1. Avatar
    Teacher with a Brain

    This article gets it all WRONG. As a teacher with a masters +, I have spent many hours studying, teaching, etc. I do not merely implement a program. If we believe that teaching is directing the progress of students through a particular curriculum, or other, then we should be hiring technicians for classrooms. Teaching is a profession, I am well-trained and I continue to endeavor to sharpen my skills. I utilize a variety of materials and methods to reach and teach my students, I have NEVER in my career simply taken and applied a boxed program, step-by-step. My first principal had it right, back in 1976, when she told me that the reading series is NOT the program. The teacher creates the program and uses resources to implement her/his program. I have never forgotten this.
    Finally, boxed programs that tout how many years of gain students will make if followed carefully are bogus. My district has had students in such a comprehensive reading program for years w/o changing the trajectory for most students.
    As a special education resource teacher, during my years of elementary teaching, I posted regular gains by using an eclectic approach with students. I had many tools in my repertoire and I paid careful attention to the needs of individual students, tailoring my approach as I taught. I NEVER used a boxed program.
    How little so many seem to understand. During the 1960s the US Dpt. of ED sponsored the famous first grade studies where they evaluated the approaches to teaching beginning reading that were around at the time, at the end of the study, and it was extended to track progress up through about 3rd and perhaps 5th grade, there was no significant strength of one “program” over another. Teachers made the differences, not programs. Teachers could approach teaching reading from drastically different perspectives and get similar results.

  2. Avatar

    Not only dos the education establishmetn fail to each teachers hwo to teach reading by DEcoding honics. In the UK anybody who DOES get it right is sacked. Dr Martin Turner, an educational psychologist, speaking for 9 LEAs, exposed the failure of look-say and lost his job, 1990. In 2011 a deputy head Richard Freeman had such good results teaching teenage strugglers using my “Step by Step” that inspectors were stunned. Was he praised? No – he lost his job.
    If all primary schools used ONLY my “Step by Step”, we would move up at least 20 points, perhaps even 30. But the Dept for Education, Ofsted, my LEA and my MP all say “The matter is closed”. And the education budget is a crippling £97bn a year!
    Only in government can utter failure be rewarded.

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