National Education Association President Reg Weaver wants all children "to achieve and succeed"-his main theme at the recent 9000 delegate NEA convention. But unless there is a full-scale, parental revolution against the instructional ideas that pervade much of elementary and secondary education, teachers and students will continue to languish in the backwaters of failed educational fads.
One recent case illustrates the point. California, which adopted "discovery learning" in science a few years ago, is giving up on that method. It has proven to be a time-consuming, ineffective mode of instruction based upon hands-on projects.
This case and others like it show a sad, destructive pattern. Instructional ideas, usually burst onto the classroom teacher's horizon by means of conferences or workshops. They quickly become the "last word" in education and then fade, relinquishing their "star status" to some newer idea. Then, the process starts all over again. One Texas teacher with thirty years of experience catalogued the new educational ideas that she was called upon to implement during her career. There were over 40! Here is a partial list: self-esteem, new math, discovery learning, the open classroom, authentic literature, high-order-thinking, time-on-task, cooperative learning, outcomes-based education, whole language, activity education, critical thinking, values clarification, inventive spelling, constructivist classroom, block scheduling, portfolios, multiple intelligences, year-round schooling, death education, sexual harassment education, bilingual education, and multicultural education.
What's wrong with an abundance of instructional ideas? For the most part, these educational strategies have proven to be what the fireworks purveyors call "duds." They shine brightly for a brief time but do not ignite improved learning. Then they fizzle out. In short, they don't work! From classrooms without walls to reading without sounds, the ideas themselves have been downright foolish. The latest (2003) National Assessment of Educational Progress tells the story. It reports that a whopping 37% of fourth graders scored "below basic" in reading. Only 8% were in the top category called "advanced." In math 23% were "below basic" and a paltry 4% were "advanced." Modes of instruction that produce a third to a quarter of students falling off the low end of the chart in basics are not acceptable!
But, how do these faulty methods gain adoption. In many cases they have been insufficiently tested before use. Claims for them outrun solid evidence for their effectiveness. Schools, desperate for improvement, embrace them. Sadly, it is the classroom teachers who suffer. They are repeatedly expected to spend time "retooling" lesson plans and "recasting" material to accommodate the latest instructional fad, when the time spent produces no measurable improvement in learning.
What can parents do about this state of affairs? How can they start a revolution in instruction or at least a notable uprising? Here are some approaches.
Before a school's administration implements its next instructional changes, insist upon seeing the studies upon which the educators are relying for their support. Get a good statistician from a local college or university to review the studies. Ask for the names of the chief opponents of the view being promoted and find out why they have objections. Above all, don't be discouraged by the pervasive attitude of superiority and hostility one is often likely to encounter. Remember, it is the children of the district who are the "guinea pigs" in what frequently are unjustified experiments.
Because one set of parents is not enough, form parental "watchdog" groups in which members agree to divide up the task of keeping current on instructional developments. Materials can be sought from sensible educational sources like The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (edexcellence.net), U.S. Freedom Foundation, especially the e-newsletter from David W. Kirkpatrick (freedomfoundation.us), from a publication called Education Next published by the Hoover Institution (educationnext.org), and Institute for Justice (IJ.org). Finally, stay abreast of educational news by reading Education Week (edweek.org).
Lasting change can be produced; a revolution can be fomented, but only with bold action, preparation, and persistence.
Editor's note: If you enjoyed this editorial, you may want to read a column by Charles Lewis at the U.S. Freedom Foundation.
Dr. John Sparks is dean of the Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College and a research fellow of the Shenango Institute for Public Policy. He has served on both private and public school boards. Contact him at email@example.com.