I am a survivor, gentle readers, a survivor of education in-service training. It has been brutal. Unproved theories and methods, taught by people certain of their brilliance, but more certain the school district’s very large paycheck will not bounce no matter what drivel they present. I will never get all those days, all those hours, back, and I’m certain my IQ has dropped due to exposure to overwhelming idiocy.
Two examples: a long time ago, in a school district far, far away, at the beginning of the school year, I found myself in an in-service training of unusually bad quality. On the first day of the first session of this brilliant new change-the-face-of education project, the person presenting the material was not only a very poor teacher, they, and the material, made no sense. At the first break, I ran into a fellow teacher, who like me, had an equally gritty real world career before becoming a teacher. Simultaneously, without prompting, we said to each other: “kill me now.” We were desperate to end the pain.
Then there was a class given by three “consultants.” The topic was teaching kids who don’t speak English how to succeed in school. No, there was no language instruction. We were told when speaking to such kids, speak loudly and slowly: “WHY–CAN’T–YOU’’UNDERSTAND–ME?” We were given a brilliant new term–in-service training all about brilliant new terms and acronyms that will make all the difference–for things such as pencils, scissors, rulers, erasers, and the like: “Manipulables.” Can’t you see how that will change everything?
Teacher: “Let’s all pick up our manipulables…”
Teacher: “Manipulables, your pencils.”
Kids: “Why didn’t you just say ‘pencils’?
Teacher: “Because we’re going to call them manipulables from now on. It’s an education term.”
Kids: “But they’re pencils!”
Teacher: “No, they’re manipulables! Repeat after me: ‘m a n i p u l a b l e s, manipulables!’”
Kids: “Y o u’ r e a d o r k.”
The best part, however, was when they demonstrated how to “model” for students and get them to make predictions. One of the women held up small, transparent plastic container filled with water, gesturing and grinning like a deranged game show model. Another held up an orange and asked us to predict what would happen when she put the orange in the water. “It will get wet?” I offered. She wasn’t impressed. She dramatically put the orange in the water and it floated. We were less than amazed.
“Now I’m going to peel the orange,” she announced, plucking it out. We watched in rapt wonder as she mostly peeled it and again asked us to predict what would happen. No one was interested in hazarding a guess, so she dramatically dunked it again, and it…floated. She and her helpers were chagrined. It was apparently supposed to sink, or perhaps transform into an apple, but it wasn’t working. So she fished it out and peeled it more completely and once again dramatically dunked it, and it floated. Red-faced, they quickly moved on to something else.
The point, gentle readers, is almost every in-service class I’ve ever had was terribly boring, was comprised of perhaps a half hour of material–they always hand out Powerpoint printouts of their complete presentation–stretched to cover an entire day. They always have us do various grade school exercises, constantly insult our intelligence, and behave like middle school cheerleaders on meth.
But most of all, for the last decade or so, they all claim every one of their brilliant new ideas is “research-based,” which means they charge a great deal more for it, and if it doesn’t work it’s only because you stupid teachers didn’t believe enough, didn’t present it with the deranged enthusiasm of middle school cheerleaders on meth or didn’t follow their method to the letter. Something “research-based” also allows educrats to fend off the objections of teachers, students and parents, because it’s research-based. What do teachers and parents know about education anyway? They haven’t done any research! They haven’t been published in education journals or marketing brochures!
Let us, therefore, gentle readers, look into the nature of education research. The Hechinger Report, uh, reports:
Education theories come and go. Experts seem to advocate for polar opposites, from student discovery to direct teacher instruction, from typing to cursive hand-writing, and from memorizing times tables to using calculators. Who can blame a school system for not knowing what works?
Actually, we all can, but we’ll get into that shortly.
One big problem is that education scholars don’t bother to replicate each other’s studies. And you can’t figure out which teaching methods are most effective unless the method can be reproduced in more than one setting and produce the same results. A new study, Facts Are More Important Than Novelty: Replication in the Education Sciences, published August 14, 2014 in Educational Researcher, found that education researchers have attempted to replicate other researchers’ results only a scant 0.13 percent of the time. Compare that with the field of psychology where there’s a 1.07 percent replication rate, eight times as much as in education. By contrast, replications within the field of medicine are commonplace and expected.
‘When we teach science, we teach students that it’s important for other people to get the same findings as you,’ said Matthew C. Makelof Duke University, one of the study’s co-authors. ‘Replication is a key part of the error-finding process. In education, if our findings cannot be replicated, we lose a lot of credibility with the scientific world and the greater public.’
‘Error — or limited generalizability — won’t be found if no one looks,’ he added. ‘And our findings show that, for the most part, in education research, we aren’t looking.’
There are two primary reasons why such studies aren’t being replicated: 1) It’s isn’t about science, it’s about recycling old, failed ideas with new terms and acronyms and selling them at exorbitant prices to credulous educrats looking to build reputations as innovators. 2) If anyone tried to replicate most of this stuff, they’d fail because most of it doesn’t work, and they know it. Just how bad is it?
Makel and his University of Connecticut colleague Jonathan Pluckerconducted a text search through the entire publication history of the top 100 education journals and found that only 221 out of more than 165,000 scholarly articles were replication studies, in which researchers tried to reproduce the results of earlier studies. (The 221 includes both exact replications and approximate ones where the experiments were tweaked a bit, say, to see if the intervention would work with a different type of student).
Now we’re getting to the point:
Part of it is unique to education. In psychology, for example, you can reproduce results fairly easily using another group of 25 undergraduates in a laboratory or clinic setting. In education, it’s far more complicated to find similar groups of students in similar school settings. Often poverty levels and racial makeups vary. And no two teachers are the same. Each will invariably put his own spin on the teaching method being tested. Many parents and school leaders are understandably reluctant to experiment on children at all.
This is what I was talking about. It’s a perfect excuse for people selling some brilliant new theory/method. If it doesn’t work, it’s the teacher’s fault. They weren’t true believers! They didn’t slavishly follow the protocols! They weren’t enthusiastic enough! They didn’t give it to the kids good and hard and long enough! Not enough money was spent! It’s like Leftism in general. It can’t possibly be wrong, so when it fails, it’s always the fault of something or someone else.
To be sure, Makel’s and Plucker’s word-search methodology — where they looked only for variants of the word ‘replicate’ — may be exaggerating the lack of scientific process in education research. Neil Seftor, an economist at Mathematica, runs the What Works Clearinghouse for the Department of Education. He specifically examines what the majority of scientific studies say about the best way to teach, or about a particular curriculum or textbook. He admits that exact replications are rare, but says he wouldn’t be interested in exact replications such as those in a laboratory setting. ‘What you want in education is evidence over a variety of settings in the real world — urban areas, special ed,’ Seftor said. When he searches for studies on new interventions, he said he often finds dozens of papers on each one, but they might not have the word ‘replication’ anywhere in their text.
‘I don’t think it would be fair to say that they’re all these educational approaches out there and they’ve only been studied one time,’ Seftor said. (Admittedly, many of the studies Seftor looks at are unpublished and financed by the developer of the curriculum.)
This is also what I was talking about. Classrooms are the very definition of uncontrollable variables. Take Mrs. Smith who teaches 10thgrade English. She’s a dedicated and skilled teacher, but the seven sections she teaches every day will be very, very different because the personality of every class will be very different. The kids have a choice. They can be highly self-motivated learners, or mere oxygen processors. They get to choose, every day, how much they want to learn and retain.
Any kind of study that might have any validity is going to require years, not weeks or even months. The variables cannot be controlled in any meaningful way, and the experiment cannot be supervised by those running it. They can’t be in every classroom, every day, for years. There’s no profit in that. What happens when teachers following the brilliant theory/protocol in Smithville High School produce wonderful results as the people pushing the theory said they would, but the teachers of Jonestown High School don’t? Are the Jonestown teachers dumb? Didn’t they follow the protocol properly? What’s wrong with those kids? It has to work because it’s research-based!
There is a simple solution: understand that human beings learn today just as they did in the time of Plato and Aristotle. Computers are mere tools, not miracles that inspire brilliance. The Internet is not a gateway to unheard of academic achievement, but another tool at best, and usually, a terrible distraction, very much a means of avoiding actual learning and intellectual growth.
Put adults in charge of schools. Maintain strict discipline so kids have a proper learning environment. Hire the best possible teachers, and ensure they have what they need to provide the best possible educational opportunity for their students. That, you see, is all the best teacher in the world can do: provide the best opportunity to learn their abilities and resources can manage. The rest is up to the kids, and their parents.
We learn through competent instruction, and consistent and correct practice over time. That’s why teachers are valuable. That’s why they have to have college degrees. That’s why experienced teachers are generally better at their jobs than inexperienced teachers.
A dedicated, capable teacher working for many years is, in effect, conducting research every day. But what could they possibly know? They’re only teachers. Better to spend billions on brilliant “new” ideas that attempt to revitalize the same old bad ideas. It’s research-based, you know.