“A long time ago, in Newsday for November 15, 1994, Billy Tashman said with reference to a large, government-sponsored field test of different instructional approaches: ‘The good news is that after 26 years, nearly a billion dollars, and mountains of data, we now know which are the most effective instructional tools. The bad news is that the education world couldn’t care less.’
The same holds true today." James Kauffman
When I first began teaching, I bristled with the desire to instruct, inspire, coach, and enlighten. I’d just been through Moray House College of Education, Edinburgh, where my tutors and mentors truly recognised the worth of excellent instruction.
Yet for the past 30 years and more, I have felt like a disillusioned school teacher who is old fashioned, out of date and not really understanding what’s happening in education.
The other day, a good friend and colleague passed on to me a recent article from Teachers College Record, by James Kauffman. It was written as an introduction to his recently published book,
The Tragicomedy of Public Education:
Laughing and Crying Thinking and Fixing.
As I read through Kauffman's article, I recalled how I felt when I read Shelley Gare’s book,
The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Common Sense.
I experienced déjà vu at every page.
James Kauffman is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
In his review article, entitled Reforming Public Education: A Tragicomedy, he explains how some people, working within education, fail to recognise the most important factor in improving learning:
“Truly ridiculous statements about reforming schools have been made by generally intelligent people who happen to botch thinking about education. Too often, their silly statements are taken seriously, making matters worse. Some would-be reformers ignore what produces most learning — instruction.”
Kauffman draws attention to all the areas of stupidity in education that I’ve complained about, for decades . . .
. . . about improving teaching:
“They might say we need better teachers without defining “better.” People aren’t necessarily better teachers because they’re smarter, know their subject better, or have taken more courses. We need standardized tests, but good teaching isn’t easily measured as “value added.” “Better teacher” doesn’t necessarily mean “higher average pupil gain score.” Good instruction is defined by what a teacher does.”
. . . about pursuing change without recognising what needs to change:
“On January 2, 2010, Kevin Huffman published in The Washington Post his heartfelt opinions about how to reform education, including suggestions that we recruit talented teachers and fire bad ones, base policies on student achievement, and get parents to demand what’s best for their children. He quotes a U.S. Senator from Colorado, who says that the education system must change, but he doesn’t say how. Any change will do? Sorry, Kevin and Senator, with all due respect, we don’t need just any kind of change. Unless it’s the right change, we’ll get nowhere.”
. . . about the misunderstanding and misuse of statistics:
“One reason the “thinking” of so many earnest reformers is tragicomic when it’s taken seriously is that you can’t have all of the children (or teachers or any other group we measure) reaching any percentile higher than the first group any more than you can have all of the children (or teachers) above average.”
. . . about setting education goals that are absurdly unachievable:
“No Child Left Behind (. . .) set the goal of universal proficiency of students by 2014. That goal is a will-o’-the-wisp that anyone else who understands the most basic mathematical-statistical realities knows is impossible.”
. . . about teaching methods inappropriately applied to all learners:
“Direct, systematic instruction is more effective than other approaches like “discovery learning” (essentially, letting kids find out for themselves) and a lot of the other popular but failed ideas about teaching. Go to www.adihome.org/ to find out more.”
. . . about using test scores to judge success.
Kauffman lists his criteria for judging success:
- effective instruction,
- students’ engagement in productive activity,
- homogeneous grouping for instruction,
- positive emotional climate,
- clear school-wide expectations,
- positive support for desired behaviour,
- involvement of parents and communities.
The Tragicomedy of Public Education: Laughing and Crying Thinking and Fixing,
James M Kauffman, FULL Court Press, 2010 – ISBN 1-57861-682-4
The Tragicomedy of Public Education – DESK COPY