What's Wrong with American Education?

With the recent contested confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, I thought it would be timely to touch on the broad question of the state of American education and not just on a narrower issue with regard to teaching and learning.

Often, as in the debate about Devos’s nomination, the argument we have in this country centers on the benefits or limitations of public schooling and the extent to which market forces and competition can improve the teaching and learning of our students.

To be sure, there is good reason to be concerned with the quality of teaching in our schools.  I have seen too many students who have struggled needlessly or who have trudged through activities that never ignited their engagement in a topic.  These faults are real and, unfortunately, widespread.

But in my teaching career of 35 years, I have not found that public schools hold a monopoly on these problems. Quite to the contrary, it is in charter schools and private schools that I have observed some of the most distressing examples of poor teaching.  Some new evidence from Louisiana and Indiana, two states with large voucher programs, confirms this observation.  Researchers found that voucher students who transferred to private schools had poorer academic performance than peers who remained in public schools.  (I will list references to this research in the comments section.)

In light of these observations, it seems very fair to say that the debate about the virtues of public versus private education does not enlighten us very much about the most significant challenge we face in the effort to improve teaching and learning in classrooms across the country.  That challenge can be put quite simply:  We need to put in every classroom a teacher who uses good curriculum materials and uses them well.  Or, to rephrase the matter to answer the question I asked to begin today’s blog, “What’s wrong with American education,” the answer is, “Not enough teachers are using good curriculum materials.”

Given the billions of dollars spent for published curriculum materials and the countless hours that teachers spend developing and refining lesson plans, one might well ask, “Why is putting good curriculum in classrooms a challenge?”  The problem certainly hasn’t been due to a lack of funds or a lack of effort.

I suspect, rather, the problem is similar to the one raised by the old story of the blind men and the elephant.  In that story a group of blind men set out to describe an elephant.  Each blind man touches a particular part of the elephant and describes the elephant in terms of what he feels. But each blind man confines himself to just a single part of the elephant.  As a result, each describes a single feature of the elephant accurately, but mistakes that feature for the whole.  In some versions of the story, each blind man becomes irate at the descriptions provided by his fellows that are so different from his own experience.

Likewise, I think, significant and broad educational reform has remained elusive because it is easy for educators at all levels, from academic researchers to curriculum designers to administrators to teachers to parents, to concentrate on only a few of components of good teaching at any one time.  The weak curricula that we have in many classrooms often contain some elements of good teaching.   They might, for instance, present interesting and relevant activities, or provide precise directions, or keep students constantly engaged in relevant work, or show students how new material is connected to what they already know, or lead them in rigorous analysis to explore and reveal important patterns and relationships, or provide efficient practice, or include opportunities to apply and extend what has been learned, or help students think explicitly about their own learning so that they can learn how to learn.

But It is the rare curriculum that address all of these areas.  And the omission of any of these components makes learning unnecessarily cumbersome and difficult.

So to all of those who want to improve teaching and learning, I say, “Keep your eyes on the curriculum!” Genuine educational reform is curriculum reform.  And our ability to achieve serious curriculum reform rests on our ability to speak more clearly and more rigorousy about all the components of good teaching.