What Happened to Research?

     What is the role of research in public education? Apparently, very little.
     For example, I've long "known" that the best way for children to study at home is to sit in the same room, at the same table, at the same time every night, and to focus on one topic or assignment intensely before moving on to the next. Indeed, this self-evident fact has long formed the core of my yearly letter to parents every September.
     Unfortunately, it's all wrong.
     Research, summarized in an article that appeared in the September 6th, 2010, issue of The New York Times, "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," debunked everything. (Just Google the title.) The numerous studies, some dating back to the 1970's, reveal that varying study location and even the topic vastly increases a student's ability to learn and remember.
     Can you see my red face? I'm not the only one, thought. Even the internet sites I found dealing with homework and study habits continue to give the same bogus advice.
     How is it that such important research has had no effect on educational dogma, that I learned of it only by accident when a non-teacher friend sent me a link to the article?
     "We have known these principles for some time," lamented Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist, "and it's intriguing that schools don't pick them up. Instead, we walk around with all sorts of unexamined beliefs about what works that are mistaken."
     Sometimes, however, vital educational research does make it out into the public. But, it is simply ignored. For example, (I apologize for kicking my favorite dead horse.) recent and comprehensive studies have documented the folly of both high stakes testing and charter schools. The Obama Administration still adopted both as national policy.
      Last September, the most rigorous study of merit pay as well proved its uselessness in raising student achievement. (Most teachers--who accepted a scandalously low salary when they entered the profession, and so are unlikely to be motivated by paltry bonuses--are already working as hard as they can. Merit pay, however, does discourage them from collaborating with each other.)
      Nonetheless, the very day after the study was published, the U.S. Department of Education distributed millions of dollars to promote merit pay programs nationally, and committed itself to dole out an additional $1.2 billion. (Yours and my tax dollars at work! Better than wasting them on war, I suppose.)
      Research clearly has no effect whatsoever on national education policy.
      As if to underscore that, President Obama signed a law last December designating teaching interns as "highly qualified."
      Of course, research highlights how the single most important factor in children's academic success--often trumping, amazingly, the socio-economic level of parents--is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. The scandal--no, the outrageous moral injustice--has been that we've sent our worst and least prepared educators, especially interns, to our neediest children in inner cities. Then we test the kids, respond with surprised indignation, and punish their schools. (This is reform? Yet another dead horse of mine.)
     The No Child Left Behind Law (spit!) briefly acknowledged this fundamental impediment to improving education for all. In a consummate act of naiveté, Congress simply mandated that all schools employ "highly qualified teachers." As if it were that easy! (We can imagine all those inner-city principals sighing in resignation, "Oh, heck, now I'm going to have to start hiring all those great teachers I've been turning away!")
      Of course, it wasn't that easy. Perhaps that's why, rather than respond to the research or address the crucial issue by redesigning how the nation recruits, trains, and distributes teachers, Congress and Obama simply redesignated interns as "highly qualified," and then washed their hands.
     What happened to research? What happened to a sincere attempt to reform our schools? What happened to honesty, courage, and justice?

Published January 31, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group) 

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