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To reclaim world leadership in education, U.S. schools must put greater emphasis on evidence-based practices

The release of David Guggenheim's documentary "Waiting for Superman" has stimulated increased interest in the quality of education that children receive in America's public schools. According to the film, "among 30 developed countries, we rank 25th in math and 21st in science."

Clearly, the causes of the problems in education are complex. There are many possible remedies that well-intentioned people believe may help, many of which are likely to be expressed and debated as we approach the November elections. In fact, it is easy to get lost in the various opinions that exist about these matters. Perhaps it would be wise to step back and consider how to best think about them.

Many professions today are being revolutionized by the idea of "evidence-based practice" as they recognize the unique ability of science to help winnow truth from error. This does not appear to be true in education. In fact, educational practice often diverges sharply from educational research.

For example, research indicates that academically oriented preschools tend to be experienced more negatively by children than play-oriented preschools, but preschools increasingly are pressured to focus on academics. Research shows that a holistic curriculum incorporating art, music, science and physical activity support (rather than detract from) cognitive learning in school, and clearly have their own benefits in encouraging the development of a balance of different skills and talents, but many schools are cutting or eliminating these programs. Research suggests that individuals learn foreign languages most easily before the age of 7, but most school districts do not encourage foreign language study until middle school or high school.

Passive learning chosen over active engagement
Research reveals that students are most intrinsically motivated and learn best when they are actively engaged in the learning process, but many classrooms focus more on passive learning, rote learning, and memorization. Research shows that individuals lose their natural interest in an activity when they are bribed with tangible rewards (such as stickers, prizes, or awards of various kinds), but most classroom teachers rely on these extrinsic incentives to motivate students. Research does not support the notion that learning is enhanced when instruction matches students' "learning styles," yet the importance of learning styles increasingly is emphasized in education.

One of the reasons educational practice differs so dramatically from educational research seems to be that people of influence in education do not appreciate or understand the value of relevant science. Most of these individuals do not seem to recognize that their opinions, often based on limited experiences, are less likely to be valid than carefully conducted scientific research. In fact, it seems that few politicians, school administrators, teachers and school board members have a good background in the science of child development or the science of education. Perhaps this, then, is the primary problem in education today.

There are many causes of this underlying problem. The best scientists are rewarded much more for sharing information with other professionals through academic journals or professional conferences than with those who might directly apply their research. Politicians are primarily concerned with the position of their party, the influence of special interests, and the relatively uneducated opinions of their constituents. Teachers increasingly do not seem to be exposed to the best science relevant to their work in their educational preparation or professional development. Courses and seminars offered to individuals interested in education often emphasize theory more than the best science available.

We should use the science that we support
Ironically, our government is one of the primary sources of funding for science in child development and education. In a time where most everyone is concerned with the government using its resources judiciously, it would seem wise — at the very least — to use the science that we already support.

Of course, science has its limitations and must be effectively applied to fit the needs of the situation. However, it seems that a greater emphasis on evidence-based practices in education may be one of the essentials to reclaiming world leadership in education and all that this means for the greater good.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., teaches psychology at Normandale Community College. He blogs regularly at The Quest for a Good Life.

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Comments (6)

I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis of his article, but Mr. Tix assumes that everyone in our society desires their fellow citizens to be extremely well educated which, sad to say, evidence would suggest is not the case.

There is a "Chamber of Commerce" attitude which desires that our schools turn out more compliant, more easily-manipulatable, less creative little worker bees (their ideal for a "good employee").

Second, the primary reason our schools are not bursting with just the sort of activity Mr. Tix rightfully believes would vastly improve their effectiveness and the experiences of the students attending them is that such schools would require the investment of vastly larger resources than we are currently willing to invest.

NCLB was, of course, designed to produce schools which operate in precisely the opposite direction (nothing but the rote drilling and memorization of bits of fact with no evaluation of the ability to connect those facts into evidence-based conceptual frameworks) and, of course, as we see increasingly in Minneosta, NCLB was designed to discredit the public schools by eventually declaring each and every public school to be failing (based on the failure of ANY SINGLE STUDENT within the student body to make adequate progress).

Perhaps if we were to apply the same standards to the members of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce we could improve the performance of our state's corporations and thereby, make our state more prosperous for the average citizen. Would anyone care to design a new NELB (No Executive Left Behind) program to measure how much close each of our business executives is to some benchmark standard of perfection each quarter and how much they've improved from the previous quarter?

No doubt the end result would be that we could dump the lot of them and find some business people capable of managing their business concerns in ways that benefit not only their own very substantial incomes but also the lives of our common citizens and the lives of their employees while protecting our beautiful natural environment. Let's start with the bankers.

In the late 90’s/early 00’s, I had occasion to spend considerable time working in Singapore. Of the many things I found admirable in that tiny country, their education system stands at the top.

Singapore is a polyglot country; there are three national languages (Malay, Chinese and Tamil), although many more can be heard on the streets.

While Singapore encourages children to protect their heritage through language, the idea of “cultural diversity” as expressed in America is unknown.

Children are inculcated with a sense of individual identity, while instilling the value of sharing a common citizenship. The idea of being a “global citizen” is taught in the context of the value such savvy brings to the country as a whole.

While much is made of students that qualify for “free and reduced lunch” in America, a student’s economic station in Singapore public schools is completely ignored, as is the race and color of students.

All students wear school uniforms; instruction is by rote and memorization. Strict discipline is maintained, and while school administrators are responsible for what happens in their schools, parents are held accountable for the behavior of their kids.

Singapore realizes that the center poles of their schools are the teachers and administrators.

To that end, only the top 1/3 of students from the national teacher training school are recruited.

The trade labor union model of “one for all/all for one” is completely unknown. Teachers that exhibit exceptional skills are rewarded financially and move up professionally towards becoming “Master Teachers”.

Master Teachers are responsible for continuous teacher training in the schools; they are also responsible for evaluating teachers professional progress.

Principals must have worked as a master teacher, and must pass a test. If accepted, they go through a training course before being assigned a school.

Finally, the system acknowledges that not every administrator is the same, not every teacher is the same and not every school is the same.

Singapore has a tiered system of recognition, culminating in the award of the title of “School of Distinction”.

Evidence based success?

Public school students in Singapore continually rank at the top in math and science related achievement, worldwide.

Before our public schools can begin to compete, a wholesale restructuring will have to be undertaken. The expectations of parents, students, teachers and administrators must undergo a radical paradigm shift.

Parents are going to have to understand that when their kids walk out the door in the morning, their responsibility is not concluded until 3:00 every day.

Administrators are going to have to prove they are trustworthy of enourmous responsibility and authority.

Teahcers are going to have to regain the sense that their work is a profession, not a trade.

I can't help but wonder how many different colors of red herring there are?

Did you guys see Britney Spears on Glee last night? She was sooooo hot!

I think TMZ has new pictures of Paris Hilton getting out of a new Bentley.

School? Teachers? Homework? Naw, I'll just copy from the smart guy -- there is one in the school and we beat him up regularly.

My friend is selling her Corolla, if I don't smoke pot for the next six months, I might be able to afford it. She said that the engines are now sealed and don't ever need oil changes and that tires are normally bald - I believe her.

Edumacation? huh? We ain't not got time for them there that. Wait my iPhone is twittering me that something is on facebook....

Even if I get to college, it's not about learning, it's about figuring the system out so I can get a diploma from a top school. I'll be friendly with the prof it'll get me that - I'll get the A.

Sad, truly sad - we've lost all sense of reality in the US and Europe. A wake up call is definitely needed.

Good article Andy!

Teacher's unions are strong and uncontroversial in school systems such as Finland's on which the film heaps praise.
And everyone covets Finland's school achievements-- what do they do--revere the teaching profession, totally unionized teaching workforce, avoid standardized tests, and programs that keep children and families out of poverty. I'm not saying all of that is the silver bullet here--lots of differences between the countries, but it's more fact based than unsubstantiated ramblings.

I think the author makes a very good point. I practice in the medical field and 'evidence-based medicine' is the std. You would be surprised at what we believed but that didn't hold up to examination.

It is very difficult to keep current with new thinking and concepts on an individual basis. It is even more difficult for institutions to incorporate new ideas.

In order to help teachers, principals and administrators remain current and capable of incorporating new knowledge into their knowledge base and the schools' operations and policies,in addition to ceu's, conferences, etc.,
my suggestion is to consider solutions similar to the agricultural extension service or the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership. These services employ experts who can share their experience at the request of the farmer or manufacturer, respectfully, to improve performance. A dedicated state/national teacher/school support service might produce steady, reliable progress.

The other possibility might be as mentioned above to promulgate a well structured teacher to teacher conversation about problems, solutions and new knowledge.