In my educational writings here at SMM, I’ve tried to inform readers about several contemporary—and damaging—trends in education.  Among them is the powerful and well-funded, but lunatic drive to implement “research-based” instruction, and attempts to implement what I’ve come to call the “magic curriculum” (I explained this in a December, 2011 article on that topic) In this article, I’ll illustrate in a bit more detail why these trends are not only foolish, but uniquely dangerous to actual learning.

Fredrick M. Hess and Francesca Pickett recently published an interesting National Review article titled Education Research as Clown College.  

In anticipation of the upcoming Vancouver conference of the American Education Research Association (AERA), Hess and Pickett “waded through the thousands of papers and panels touted in the electronic conference program.”  They wrote:

This year’s conference, guided by the theme ‘To Know Is Not Enough,’ invited the nation’s educational researchers to ask, ‘What actions should be taken . . . to ensure that research knowledge is used to improve education and actually serve the public good?’

To those not intimately familiar with educationalese, the theme might actually seem to reflect common sense.  Those of us laboring daily in the fields of education know that common sense is in short supply, particularly where education “research” is concerned.  Education research, for example, once proved conclusively that phonics was outmoded and that children could learn to read essentially by means of pattern recognition in looking at words and considering them “in context.”  This is known as the “whole language” approach.  Research also once convinced us that school buildings without internal classroom walls (the “open classroom concept”) would promote incredible advancements in flexibility and learning.  Both were unmitigated disasters and while the open classroom concept has long been abandoned, whole language continues to produce children whose ability to read is limited, at best.  The kind of “research” that produced these and innumerable other debacles continues apace.

How do I know?  See for yourself.  Hess and Pickett list the following papers to be presented at the conference:

Can the Very Thought of Education Break Bricks?

To Know I Can Might Be Enough: Women’s Self-Efficacy and Their Identified Leadership Values.

Seeds of Genius in the Early Lives of Two Eminent Creative Brothers: To Know Is Not Enough.

To Know That We Know What We Know, and To Know That We Do Not Know What We Do Not Know, That Is True Knowledge.

Boredom in Academic Settings.

Foucault and Contemporary Theory in Education.

(Re)imagining Foucault: New Directions in Foucauldian Scholarship.

Educational Reform and the Problem of Subjectification: Deglobalizing the Global.

Technologies of Subjectification: Foucault and the Production of Self.

Paulo Freire, games, nonhumans, and cartoons.

I have not read these papers, and of course have not attended the conference, but I can attest, based on long experience, that such titles do not suggest rational common sense-based discourse and the transmission of information useful to competent teachers.  Should you be delighted by these titles and expect enlightenment, may I politely suggest you confine yourself to your bathroom where lengthy contemplation of your navel is in order.  You’ll do much less damage that way.

Hess and Pickett are particularly impressed (you’ve noticed I’m being ironic here, haven’t you?) by the obsession of education researchers and intelligensia with the deceased Communist Paulo Freire (for those who have any doubt of my thinking on this matter, communists and their sympathizers have murdered as many as 100 million people in the last century alone.  I do not consider them role models).  They wrote:

No AERA experience is complete without a visit to sessions based on the musings of the late Communist revolutionary Paulo Freire. In fact, with nine presentations, the special sessions on ‘Freire, Critical Pedagogy, and Emancipation’ outnumber those on more mundane research topics such as ‘Longitudinal Studies,’ ‘Test Validity Research and Evaluation,’ and research featuring the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Some of the most interesting Freire-themed papers include ‘Codifications of Reality as Educational Tools for Critical Consciousness: Retheorizing Freire Through Praxis,’ ‘Teaching for Outrage and Empathy: Challenging Preservice Teachers’ Hegemonic Perspectives and Practices,’ and ‘Student Empowerment, Eco-Pedagogy, Popular Culture, and Love.’ Imagine that, everything from ‘codifications of reality’ to ‘preservice teachers’ hegemonic perspectives’ — and you still get a little bit of love. This is why we so love AERA.

I don’t know about you, fellow educators, but until I’ve codified my reality as educational tools for critical consciousness by retheorizing Freire through praxis each and every morning, I’m just not myself.  Hess and Pickett provide additional obfuscation:

Anne Frank Confronts Queen Isabella: Learning Phenomena in Historical, Cultural, and Social Online Simulation Games.’

‘We Put Our Swag All Over It’: Negotiating Local and Global Identity Online and Offline.

Thinking Across/Through the Species Divide: Nonhuman Animals in Educational Theory and Research.

Getting to Bedrock: Diverse Perspectives on Emergence, Nonlinearity, and Relationality in Education.

Crazy, Depressive White Ghosts in the Closet: Someone Help Me Say the ‘N’ Word.

‘Something Doesn’t Feel White’: Racial Affect, White Dissonance, and the Possibility for Challenging Whiteness in Education.

A Theoretical Toolbox: Using Theories of Gender and Sexuality to Uncover New Histories of Education.

(Re)producing and Dismantling Heteronormative Spaces in Schools.

Reorienting Deconstruction: Researching the Iterability of the Pedagogical Mark.

T’aała’i Diidleeł (We Become One): Toward a Collective and Ceremonial Praxis of Indigenous Decolonizing Scholarship.

“But surely,” you think, “these paper titles are satiric!  These people couldn’t possibly be this self-important and obtuse!”  No, they’re not satiric, they are indeed this self-important, and you have no idea how obtuse they are until you’ve actually survived—hopefully with minimal brain damage–one of these sessions.  Oh yes, and don’t call me Shirley.  By all means, take the link and read the entire article; it’s well worth your time.

An example from my college days should suffice to make the point.  For several long years I suffered—I attended a small school and had no choice but to take several of her classes–a “feminist” professor who had quite an inflated—to Zeppelin-like proportions–opinion of her “scholarship.”  On one memorable occasion, I was attending a summer seminar on western literature where she was presenting a session on her groundbreaking new theory of feminist consciousness in female plains literature (or something like that).  Sitting beside me was an accomplished, intelligent and rational male teacher from a nearby high school.

As she unleashed her theory, which made not a molecule of sense, the gentleman sitting beside me became more and more confused and agitated.  I knew precisely what he was thinking as I had worked through those issues years earlier during my first class with the woman.  Intellectually, he knew she was spouting nonsense, but he couldn’t imagine that a professor would be doing that.  He began to ask questions, rational, intelligent questions, and she would spout nonsense, deftly sidestep and dive headfirst into yet another intellectual swamp, leaving the poor fellow more and more frustrated.  I finally passed him a note encouraging him to drop it and offering to explain at the next break.  He took my advice and was much relieved to learn that his apparent lack of understanding had nothing to do with him, but with the fact that she was making no sense and was exceedingly proud of it.

I later learned that her paper based on the lecture we survived was very well received in academic circles.  If you’re shocked, shocked(!) by that, you’re in line for the next Louis Renault award.

Is it a surprise that such “research” would produce educational theories that are questionable at best, theories that if implemented would not only fail to improve education, but be damaging to everyone upon whom they were inflicted and at great expense?  Follow me then, gentle readers, a bit further down the path as we explore an Inside Higher article by Steve Kolowich titled A Win For The Robo-Readers.

Among of the plethora of serious problems with high stakes, mandatory state testing is the time and expense involved in hiring and training, each and every year, legions of people to read and grade the required essays.  How much better would it be if the human factor could be entirely eliminated!  Kolowich reported:

…according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Akron. The study, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, compared the software-generated ratings given to more than 22,000 short essays, written by students in junior high schools and high school sophomores, to the ratings given to the same essays by trained human readers.

The differences, across a number of different brands of automated essay scoring software (AES) and essay types, were minute. ‘The results demonstrated that over all, automated essay scoring was capable of producing scores similar to human scores for extended-response writing items,’ the Akron researchers write, ‘with equal performance for both source-based and traditional writing genre.’

‘In terms of being able to replicate the mean [ratings] and standard deviation of human readers, the automated scoring engines did remarkably well,’ Mark D. Shermis, the dean of the college of education at Akron and the study’s lead author, said in an interview.

By all means, read the entire, brief article.  It does point out that reading software isn’t ready for prime time, but the danger of such things is that most of the most foolish and destructive educational debacles have not only not been ready for prime time, but have also been fully “research-based.”

The “magic curriculum” to which I’ve alluded is essentially a pre-packaged and substantially computer-delivered course of instruction that promises miraculous academic achievement not possible with faulty, human instructors.  Such a course would be written and provided by a single source, such as Pearson, the company that provides high stakes tests and related services for many states.  Not only would that company provide all texts and materials, they would write and score the mandatory high stakes tests which are, of course, written with the texts and materials as source.

In such classes, teachers would cease being teachers and instead merely ensure that on Tuesday, February 2, at 10:03 AM, like every student in their state, their students were reading page 937, paragraph 4, sentence 2 of the approved text, to be followed at 10:12:25 by supplementary video B27C-12.  Little or no explanation would be required, so perfect and research-based would the material be.  At the end of the year—for the testing industry and its political supporters are moving the states toward “end-of-course” testing—students would take tests based entirely, word-for-word on the material on which they had been relentlessly, mind-numbingly drilled all year, and the results would likely be reasonably good.  If that drilling was all you did all year, wouldn’t you expect to do well on the final test?  The test scores will, of course, be touted as evidence of the brilliance and relevance of the curriculum.

Because fewer teachers will be required, and any materials not a part of the pre-packaged, officially approved curriculum could not be used, and because ”teacher” qualifications and experience could be greatly reduced, this magic curriculum would save money.  And if almost all teachers could be eliminated, if instruction could be delivered almost entirely by computer with only a few adult minders present to keep kids glued to their computer monitors and to keep them from killing each other out of boredom and intellectual regression, even more money could be saved.  One of the essential elements to this brave, new future must be software that can not only teach in a semi-interactive fashion, but that can grade student’s work, including their writing.

Are you seeing where I’m going?  Then return next Tuesday when I’ll explain why all of this is a very, very bad, research-based idea.