Zombie Ideas Again: “The Learning Pyramid”

Stories, ideas, and beliefs that have been disproved through scientific studies litter the mind. Professionals across-the-board in medicine, law, architecture, engineering, and business take-for-granted stories that have little to no basis in evidence. Yet they persist.

In earlier posts, I have identified such “zombie” ideas that have scientific-crafted shafts buried in their heart yet arise again and again (see here and here). I offer another one that a viewer of this blog (Pedro De Bruyckere, a teacher educator in Ghent, Belgium) suggested in a recent comment . He and colleagues have written a book about common myths that educators hold and he reminded about the “Learning Pyramid.”


A cottage industry of debunkers have pointed out many times over the past quarter-century that the “Pyramid” has no scientific standing and comes from unattributed sources mushed together in the 1960s and 1970s (see here, here, and here). Although it lives on, seldom, however, in official programs (there are exceptions, see here) the “Pyramid” resides quietly and strongly in the folk wisdom of those many practitioners who believe in their heart-of-hearts that active or experiential learning is far better (and more effective) than teachers talking, showing visuals, or demonstrating concepts. How come?

Such beliefs about knowledge retention exist in the minds of many college educators and practitioners across the professional spectrum–increased by the launching of lecture-dominated  MOOCs and surge in lecture-driven online courses–representing another instance of “confirmation bias.”

Why does the belief in the “Learning Pyramid” persist in the face of so much counter-evidence? The zombie effect about the “Pyramid,”and here is where I am speculating, reinforces the tilt that so many university teacher educators and workplace practitioners have toward student-centered, experienced-driven learning. Such ways of thinking about better ways of teaching were pushed by early 20th century pedagogical progressives, 1960s-era neo-progressives, and now with the explosion of “personalized” and blended learning, many reformers have shrouded themselves in the cloak of student-centered learning. Progressive rhetoric about student-centered teaching and learning abounds.

I have no bias for or against student-centered, project-based, whole child-driven progressive teaching (or whatever label best fits). I have stated my position often that those who teach daily need mixes of both student-centered and teacher-centered practices. They need a broad repertoire of ways of teaching. My histories of how teachers have taught since the mid-19th century make that point in capital letters. I have worked hard to scrub any bias toward one or the other set of classroom practices, always arguing that “hugging the middle” of the spectrum on teaching approaches is both historical and consistent with contemporary practices that I have found in classrooms around the nation. Having said that, I have also found that many teacher educators and practitioners cherish the notions, but particularly the talk, that one way of teaching is better than another and that way is student-centered, however defined. The “Learning Pyramid” while not often referred to explicitly gives such believers aid and comfort because the bottom three strata of the “Pyramid” confirm that student participation retains the most knowledge–even though past and current studies fail to find that to be true.

Consider teacher educators. David Labaree argues that university schools of education became centers of progressive rhetoric about child-centered education over decades (see here) even though the realities of public school organization, curriculum, and instruction tilted strongly toward encouraging teacher-centered instruction. Teacher educators, he says, prepared their charges for classrooms for a workplace where progressive methods should be used but seldom were. Lecturing to students, “direct instruction” and more teacher talk than student talk were negatives to many of these teacher educators. The “Learning Pyramid,” seldom referred to explicitly,  justified language and approaches to instruction that privileged discussion, small groups, and active student participation (see here).

Turn to classroom teachers. In my research of teachers past and present, I have found that primary grade teachers generally adhere to more student-centered, whole-child approaches than secondary school teachers. There does remain, however, even among those upper-grade teachers who see their primary duty to convey content and teach skills a rhetorical embrace of student participation with recognition that such approaches are harder to implement, particularly in times when standards, testing, and accountability are dominant policy prescriptions.

These deeply buried progressive beliefs among so many teacher educators and practitioners feed and nurture the “Learning Pyramid,” I believe, so that it persists well after it has been debunked and buried.





Filed under Uncategorized

Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction

Everyone likes data that back their prejudices. Academics call it “confirmation bias.” It runs rife among U.S. Presidents, state governors, legislators, school district policymakers, and Moms and Dads. I include myself in the crowd. People with beliefs on one or the other side of an issue lean heavily on examples and evidence that supports their view of, say, gun control, dieting, the worth of alternative medicine or the two-shooter theory in the Kennedy assassination. Resisting confirmation bias and being open-minded, a process that is closer to sandpaper rather than a soft pillow, requires awareness of one’s beliefs, values and positions on issues. It is hard work and requires attention in what one chooses to read, listen to, and think because it is far easier to screen out or avoid contrary information. Convenience often trumps thinking. All of this is also true for teachers. Consider the issue of  data-driven instruction and learning styles.

Gurus, vendors, and policymakers urge teachers to use test data such as research results and experts’ lists of “best practices” in their daily lessons (see here and here). The record of actual teacher use of data in classrooms however, is, at best, spotty. What happens, then, when research evidence overwhelmingly goes against deeply-held teacher beliefs in “learning styles?”

The most recent and detailed reviews of the literature on learning styles reveals little support for providing materials that play to the auditory, visual, tactile, and other ways that students learn (see here and here). Yet teacher beliefs about the importance of differentiating instruction to meet students’ varied interests, attitudes, abilities, and “styles” continue to be unflagging (see here).

Making sense of the contradiction between using data to drive classroom decisions and the poverty of studies that support “learning style”

So many teachers and studies have claimed–the operative phrase is “research shows”–that learning styles exist and differentiating instruction to match varied “styles” will lead to higher academic achievement (see here and here). Yet meta-analyses of available research has found little concrete evidence of such linkages. Even more so, the research on student learning styles is often deeply flawed in both design and methodology. Researchers have concluded:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.
There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for [causal links between styles and achievement]…. Al-
though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
A less jargony and concise analysis of learning styles and connections to student outcomes can be found in psychologist Daniel Willingham’s Q & A on the subject (see here).
So what’s going on here? Are teacher beliefs so powerful as to overcome strong findings that challenge those very beliefs? The answer is, unsurprisingly, yes. Not only do teacher beliefs in learning styles trump evidence but similar tensions between beliefs and data-driven decisions occur around direct instruction, multiple intelligences, and holding students back for a semester or year and other practices. But teachers, of course, are not the only professionals to succumb to confirmation bias. Doctors, lawyers, software engineers–name the profession–have similar issues. In short, the practice is pervasive among professionals and average folk.
If such cognitive bias is rife among the highly and barely educated, where does that leave data-driven instructional decisions as a “best practice?” Such biases mean, at least to me, that for any reforms aimed at teaching and learning the very first step is to deal openly and directly with the varied beliefs (and assumptions) that teachers have about their content knowledge, how best to teach that content to the young, and how do children learn more and better. These beliefs influence teacher choices of daily activities, instructional materials, arranging classroom furniture, what subject-matter and skills to teach, and grouping of students.
Without attention to teacher beliefs, confirmation bias will continue to go unnoticed as it so often does among physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and software developers. And data-driven instruction will remain lofty rhetoric rather than classroom realities.


Filed under how teachers teach

A “Zombie” Reform: Outcome Based Education (OBE) in Medical Education and K-12 Schools

Outcome Based Education (OBE) rolled through U.S. public schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, OBE (a.k.a “mastery learning,” “competency-based education”) is still around (see here). But the drum-beating policy talk and promises of turning around “failing” U.S. schools, well, those claims have evaporated for K-12 schools.  Except for university medical education. Thus, a “zombie” reform returns.

On the 100th anniversary of the Flexner Report (1910) which did, indeed, alter medical education a century ago, another gaggle of reforms aimed at transforming current medical education has swept across U.S. medical schools in the past decade. I say “another” because like K-12 U.S. schools, university medical education has had cycles of reform aimed at the original Flexnerian model of medical education–two years of basic sciences (e.g., anatomy, biochemistry, genetics) and two years of clinical practice in hospitals and clerkships in various specialties (e.g., surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics).  OBE–sometimes called “Competency-Based  Education” (CBE)–has become the “reform du jour” in this cycle of change in medical education. Yet its shortcomings and missing elements applied to medical education have already been documented fully  (see 2013_OBE).

OBE in either K-12 or medical schools is all about educators identifying concepts, knowledge, and skills that students must have in the “real world,” teaching both, and then measuring  performance to see whether students have acquired the requisite knowledge and skills.

In OBE, how long it takes for each student to master the content and skills is not tied to a prescribed time such as a quarter, semester, or year. Nor is any pedagogy privileged. Moreover, assessment is not only a one-time snapshot, it is ongoing.  Mastery depends upon individual students’ grasp of the material and their demonstration of skills. Thus, in K-12 schools embracing OBE would give up an age-graded system–1-8, 9-12. Students would not be compared to one another. Teachers would be free to use varied pedagogies matched to student differences as each one masters prescribed outcomes. Yet OBE, even with the stamp of Presidential approval (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) barely made a dent in U.S. schools in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is in the dust-bin reserved for once-hyped school reforms.

For medical education, however, CBE has come back from the dead. As had occurred in K-12 OBE, definitional problems have arisen often. For medical education, a recent definition is:

Competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to preparing physicians for practice that is fundamentally oriented to graduate outcome abilities and organized around competencies derived from an analysis of societal and patient needs. It de-emphasizes time-based training and promises greater accountability, flexibility, and learner-centredness.
Defining what CBE is also means specifying what outcomes have to be mastered before medical students can become doctors. One report summarized the seven roles that physicians must become competent in: “medical expert, communicator, collaborator, manager, health advocate, scholar, professional.” In addition, according to the report, physicians must master 28 general competencies and 154 “enabling and sub-competencies.”
But even definitions and detailed outcomes cannot get around one of the fundamental lapse in K-12 OBE and currently faces those leaders in medical education who seek to implement CBE. And that lapse has haunted not only these reforms but any major change seeking to alter structures and cultures in educational organizations: inattention to the capacities of teachers and, in this instance, medical school professors to both understand the reform and implement it fully. As one report put it, albeit delicately (see: 00001888-201110000-00017-1 )
Faculty in medicine are expected to teach, yet most faculty enter their academic positions underprepared for their roles as medical educators—even when they assume education leadership positions. This lack of formal training in teaching may be due, in part, to a lack of recognition of the complex skills (from techniques in microteaching to metaskills in program evaluation) necessary to succeed as a medical educator. Without formal educational training, most faculty members undergo ad hoc training, selecting from a local/national menu of programs, that they hope will enhance their skills—after they assume their teaching roles. Developing a better understanding of the skills necessary for success as a medical educator would be an important advance for medical education, resulting in the improved quality of teaching and enhanced learner outcomes.
Less delicately, I would say: If those who are expected to put CBE into practice lack the know-how in helping students master the specified outcomes, how in the world can learners become competent in their roles as doctors? Like so many promised reforms in K-12 schooling, teachers have to implement the reform and in doing so acquire the knowledge and skills that will aid students. The same is true for CBE in medical education. Putting an end to “zombie” reforms begins with recognizing that teachers and medical faculty are the gatekeepers to any meaningful classroom change be it OBE or CBE.


Filed under comparing medicine and education

The Puzzle of School Reform Cycles

Anyone over the age of 40 who is familiar with public schools knows that similar reforms come again and again as if policy makers suffered amnesia. Consider, for example, the fundamental (and familiar) question that has launched periods of reform like changing seasons: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

The policy question was asked initially in the 1890s–a politically conservative era–and answered yes (see here and here). Then two decades later after World War I, policymakers working in a liberal political climate, asked the question and answered no. Students should be able to choose whether they want to go to college, work in white- and blue-collar jobs (see here and here). Then in the late 1950s in the middle of the Cold War–a politically conservative era, the policy question arose again and the answer was yes; all students should study rigorous subject matter in math, sciences, and social studies (see here and here). Between the 1960s and the 1970s, policymakers asked the question again, and answered it yes at one time and no at another (see here and here).

And since the early 1980s ( a Nation at Risk report being a marker of that politically conservative era) the curriculum standards, testing, and accountability movement now including the Common Core standards, all students are expected to learn the same content and skills.

In each instance since the 1890s, then, as times became conservative and liberal, school curricula cycled back and forth between all students studying the same content and skills and students (and their parents) being able to choose what content and skills they want to focus on.

Similar reform cycles on how best to teach (teacher-centered or student-centered) have marked policy debates then and now (see here). Ditto for how best to organize districts and schools–centralized authority in district offices or delegate authority to school sites (see here). Again and again these cycles of reform have occurred. How come?

Before turning to an answer to this question, keep in mind that cycles are part of our lives. There are animal and plant life cycle of birth through death. There are seasonal cycles of weather. And there are non-biological and non-climate cycles as well. Economists have documented business cycles of boom and bust. Political scientists have pointed to electoral cycles of liberalism and conservatism. Historians and health care scientists have focused on cycles in medicine and medical education alternating in the past century between care for the patient and producing research-based physicians. So public schools are surely in step with other institutions insofar as having periodic cycles of reform.

The beginnings of any answer to the question of “how come”? is found outside of public schools. Like all cliches there is a grain of truth at the core of the trite saying that when the U.S. has a cold, public schools sneeze. Historically, economic, political, demographic, and cultural changes in the larger society reverberate across tax-supported public schools because they are at their core political institutions that respond to both conservative and liberal movements. Each of the above reform cycles in curriculum, pedagogical, and organization occurred at moments when conservative or liberal ideology gained more adherents and elected officials congenial to those ideas.

The most obvious example in the lives of current U.S. educators has been the linking of the economy to school reform beginning in the late-1970s and lasting until the present day–although changes are in the air (see below). Two economic recessions (1973-1975 and 1980-1982) when high unemployment (9% and 10% respectively) led to the Republican twelve year hold on the Presidency (Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988, George H.W. Bush, 1988-1992). The issuing of A Nation at Risk laid out an agenda of school reform around high curriculum standards, tougher graduation requirements, testing, and accountability that tightly coupled schools to a stronger economy. For three decades, then, this politically conservative (both Republicans and Democrats) ideology of harnessing public schools to build a strong economy has brought the U.S. education to a Common Core Curriculum and preparing students to be “college and career” ready. This generation of school reformers has answered yes to the question: Should all students study the same content and acquire the same skills?

My answer to the question of cycles of school reform, then looks to the periodic shifts in political ideologies among policymakers and the populace, often prompted by social, economic, and cultural changes.

But there may be a shift in the offing. America may be moving to the left side of the political spectrum after decades on the center-right. Growing parental and educator protests against testing and Common Core standards point to a slowly evolving popular movement against federal intervention into local schools. Moreover, policymakers signaled shifts in the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind (2002) into Every Student Succeeds Act (2015). The law devolves responsibility for low-performing schools back to the states.  Far more acceptance of social-emotional learning, project based teaching, concern for the “whole child” may be further markers of a turn to the liberal bend of the historic political cycle.

If the nation has a cold, public schools sniffle.


Filed under school reform policies

Flawed Assumptions about School Reform Strengthening the U.S. Economy

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

For years I have seen Keynes’s quote and thought little of it. In the past week, however, this economist’s reflection of nearly a century ago pinched me and got me thinking about school reform in the U.S. for the past three decades. Taken for granted is the rationale that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace. Moreover, jobs have disappeared. The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society. That has been the rationale for over thirty years of school reform.

And here is where the influential ideas of “defunct economist[s]” enter the picture. Turn back the clock to A Nation at Risk (1983). The idea of the U.S. losing its global technological, scientific, and economic position was due, the report claimed, to the mediocrity of U.S. schools. Data showed that U.S. schools were failing. Evidence cited in the report pointed to low test scores of U.S. students compared to international students, high numbers of high school dropouts, low curriculum standards, and low salaries for teachers. The call for strengthened curriculum standards and tougher graduation requirements would lead, the report said, to a stronger economy.

Harnessed to the then dominant economic concept of  “human capital,” the public school’s job is to increase students’ knowledge and skills geared to a fast-changing world where information and services drives the economy. Those students equipped with high-tech and thinking skills will be more productive workers thus contributing to economic growth. Few policymakers challenged economists’ confidence in public school investments building a stronger economy.

Since then, beliefs in the growth of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity have led to state and federal laws–influenced strongly by economic thinking of “human capital,” economists–that called for far more intervention into local schools. No Child Left Behind (2002) crowned that intervention with the U.S. Department of Education monitoring state test results for students grades 3-8 and then naming, shaming, and blaming schools and districts that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. A culture of testing, enhanced by students’ increased access to computers, produced an industry of test prep, narrowed the curriculum, and strengthened traditional teaching. All of this increased policy activity turned the assumption that a stronger schooling would lead to a stronger economy into a fact.

These ideas continue to motivate research by current economists who produce studies (see here and w21770)  that show state investments in schooling produce not only economic gains for individuals but also strong gains in the Gross Domestic Product. Suppose, however, that these policy assumptions that have driven school reform for over three decades are wrong.

Consider the following. The assumption that economists made about the importance of U.S. students acquiring more knowledge, skills, and expertise in computers has severe holes in it, given the depressed salaries of college graduates since 2000 and growing income inequality in the U.S.

As Paul Krugman put it:

Something else began happening after 2000 …. After decades of stability, the share of national income going to employee compensation began dropping fairly fast. One could try to explain this, too, with technology—maybe robots were displacing all workers, not just the less educated. But this story ran into multiple problems. For one thing, if we were experiencing a robot-driven technological revolution, why did productivity growth seem to be slowing, not accelerating? For another, if it was getting easier to replace workers with machines, we should have seen a rise in business investment as corporations raced to take advantage of the new opportunities; we didn’t, and in fact corporations have increasingly been parking their profits in banks or using them to buy back stocks.

Big corporations (including hedge funds) have failed to invest in commerce but they have used their market power politically to change the rules of the games. Krugman again:

Rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, via campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door. Political influence in turn is used to rewrite the rules of the game—antitrust laws, deregulation, changes in contract law, union-busting—in a way that reinforces income concentration. The result is a sort of spiral, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Economists Krugman, Robert Reich, and others see the prevailing ideas of new technologies powering economic growth and productivity–the theories that have fueled the “human capital” thrust to school reform for over thirty years–as flawed. The concentration of U.S. economic power into fewer and fewer corporations (e.g., banking, transportation, agriculture, media) generating profits that have been used to increase their political leverage leaves the current agenda of school reform, based on previous ideas of investing in “human capital” stranded on a deserted island. Lost and failed.

If only current school reformers can give serious thought to the questioning of the socioeconomic assumptions that ground current U.S. policies and practices, then, perhaps the reform palette can shift from painting with Common Core standards, extensive state and local testing, and coercive accountability to project-based teaching, socio-emotional learning, arts and the humanities, wraparound community services, and concerns for the whole child.

I end with another John Maynard Keynes quote: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”





Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Why Your Students Forgot Everything On Your PowerPoint Slides (Mary Jo Madda)

Mary Jo Madda writes for EdSurge. This post appeared January 19, 2015.

Don’t fret, we’ve all been there: You’re up late the night before Thursday and you have to teach a lesson at 8 AM the next day. So, what do you do? Throw some text on a PowerPoint and get ready to talk through your points. Couldn’t hurt, right? You might not always read straight off of the slides—they’ll just help keep your lecture on track, and if you lose your place, the text is right there for you.

Unfortunately, whether you’re discussing Columbus with 4th graders or quantum physics with college freshmen, you may be hurting your students’ learning more than helping them.

Let’s explore why instructional design doesn’t typically work with students, or anyone’s learning for that matter, when you teach with PowerPoint—as well as how you can avoid it. It all begins with a little concept called “cognitive load.”

Too Much for the Student to Process

Imagine your student’s brain as a container. When you start tossing rocks into the container, it gets heavier and heavier—and more difficult for the student to carry or sort through. Essentially, that’s cognitive load. Cognitive load describes the capacity of our brain’s working memory (or WM) to hold and process new pieces of information. We’ve all got a limited amount of working memory, so when we have to handle information in more than one way, our load gets heavier, and progressively more challenging to manage.

In a classroom, a student’s cognitive load is greatly affected by the “extraneous” nature of information—in other words, the manner by which information is presented to them (Sweller, 2010). Every teacher instinctively knows there are better—and worse—ways to present information. The reason for these, research shows, is that when you lighten the load, it’s easier for students’ brains to take information in and transform it into memory.

Teaching with text-based PowerPoint slides while also reading them aloud, unfortunately, amounts to throwing too many rocks into the student container—and potentially causing students to regress.

The Redundancy Effect

Simultaneous auditory (spoken) and visual presentation of text, often done through PowerPoint presentations, is an all-too-common occurrence in classrooms nowadays. Think about it: How many times have you walked into a classroom or lecture hall and heard a teacher reading out the text on slides displayed on the front board?

A study in Australia in the late 1990s (the 1999 Kalyuga study) compared the learning achievement of a group of college students who watched an educator’s presentation involving a visual text element and an audio text element (meaning there were words on a screen while the teacher also talked) with those who only listened to a lecture, minus the pesky PowerPoint slides. The researchers concluded that utilizing visual stimuli involving words while a separate auditory presentation is delivered increases the cognitive load, rather than lessening it.

It’s called the the redundancy effect. Verbal redundancy “arises from the concurrent presentation of text and verbatim speech,” increasing the risk of overloading working memory capacity—and so may have a negative effect on learning.

Consider, for instance, a science lesson on food chains. A teacher may start by lecturing on the difference between herbivores and carnivores. Up comes a slide with definitions of each term. The teacher starts reading directly from the slide. The duplicated pieces of information—spoken and written—don’t positively reinforce one another; instead, the two flood students’ abilities to handle the information.

Researchers including John Sweller and Kimberly Leslie contend that it would be easier for students to learn the differences between herbivores and carnivores by closing their eyes and only listening to the teacher. But students who close their eyes during a lecture are likely to to called out for “failing to paying attention.”

How to Lighten the Load

So, then, what do you do? How do you ensure that your kids learn from your lectures rather than wind up with brains that feel like oversoaked sponges? (And keep in mind, entrepreneurs—this could apply to your product pitches as well.)

Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, offers the following prescription: Eliminate textual elements from presentations and instead talk through points, sharing images or graphs with students. This video illustrates exactly what he means (see video here).

This approach, he suggests, is particularly appropriate for those subjects where geometric graphs and visual imagery are crucial for understanding key concepts, like food chains, the water cycle or calculating surface area.

Other studies, such as a separate Australian investigation by Leslie et al. (2012), suggest that mixing visual cues with auditory explanations (in math and science classrooms, in particular) are essential and effective. In the Leslie study, a group of 4th grade students who knew nothing about magnetism and light learned significantly more when presented with both images and a teacher’s explanation than a separate group which received only auditory explanation.

Are you a science teacher? Throw up a picture of a lion’s tooth and a zebra’s tooth onto the screen while explaining the differences between carnivores and herbivores. Teach social studies? Surround the number “1776” with painted images of the founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, rather than including straight facts on your presentation.

And if you find it difficult to eliminate words entirely from your PowerPoint presentations, especially when you want students to get those key vocabulary words down, here are some additional hints:

  • Limit yourself to one word per slide. If you’re defining words, try putting up the vocabulary word and an associated set of images—then challenge students to deduce the definition.
  • Honor the “personalization principle,” which essentially says that engaging learners by delivering content in a conversational tone will increase learning. For example, Richard Mayer suggests using lots of “I’s” and “you’s” in your text, as students typically relate better to more informal language.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

A Tale of 2 States: Lessons to Be Learned (Frederick Hess and Sarah DuPre)

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sarah DuPre is a Research Assistant in Education Policy at American Enterprise Institute

U.S. News and World Report, “Knowledge Bank” ,  Dec. 14, 2015

Whether you agree or disagree with their characterizations of Washington, D.C. and Hawaii as “success” stories–the sole metric used is the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress–is less important than the lessons they extract from these two “success” stories. These lessons are anchored in the power of context shaping reform, a lesson that historians have found again and again in their inquiries into past school reforms.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act wisely returns to the states much of the authority for directing school improvement that the federal government had assumed in the past 15 years. Some states are ready to roll, but plenty are searching for potential role models. Fortunately, at least two such candidates are easy to find.

Earlier this fall, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” provided a snapshot of student achievement across the land. Amidst generally disappointing results, there were a few bright spots. Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, led the nation in aggregate national assessment improvement over the past decade. From dismal depths in 2005, the two have climbed their way to respectability. In a new report for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, entitled, “Laggards to Leaders in K-12,” we take a deeper look at what has transpired in these locales that can help account for their outsized gains.

The District’s bold approach to reform is the more familiar story. In 2007, the city council voted to give control of the schools to the new mayor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty appointed the dynamic Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools. Under Fenty and Rhee, the District negotiated a radical new contract with the Washington Teachers Union that allowed teachers to earn more than $100,000 a year with just nine years of experience – in return for an end to traditional tenure protections. D.C. Public Schools also streamlined the central administration, adopted a pioneering new teacher evaluation system, revamped a broken special education system and shuttered excess schools. This preliminary work set the stage for a phase two, led by Rhee’s one-time deputy and eventual successor Kaya Henderson, which focused on engaging families and recruiting, retaining and developing talented teachers and school leaders.

Even as these dramatic changes were occurring within D.C. Public Schools, the D.C. charter sector was flourishing. Today, it enrolls about 45 percent of District students. Charters thrived with an ecosystem of organizations that helped to attract and support effective schools. Those efforts were coupled by a statutory shift that gave the D.C. Public Charter School Board oversight of all local charter schools, and allowed them to help poor-performing charters either improve or close.

Hawaii’s story is strikingly different. It is not an account of controversial leaders or bold policies but of culture and collaboration. As a small island state with only 180,000 students and a single school district, Hawaii makes it possible for state leaders to have a direct connection to the schools – and direct control over what happens – in ways that are not feasible in larger states. That personal touch was augmented by leadership stability; Hawaii has had just two state superintendents in the past 14 years.

The District’s bold strategies would have limited applicability in Hawaii because the state couldn’t overhaul its teaching force even if it wanted to. As one official observed, “We’re an island. We get 100 Teach For America teachers a year. Pretty much all our other new teachers come out of the University of Hawaii. If we fire them, it’s not like we’ve got replacements.” Hawaii’s strategy focused on granting more power to local schools and encouraging instructional alignment across grade levels (extending up to the university system). The small size leadership features a lot of conversation and shared commitment, frequently spearheaded by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, which connects leaders in K–12, higher education, business, philanthropy and government. That trust and familiarity played a key role in Hawaii making notions like “data-driven decisions” and “local control” much more than empty slogans.

Although the District and Hawaii approached school improvement in vastly different ways, both states have made great strides. That suggests it may be worth paying particular attention to a few key similarities:

Persistence Counts. Both states pursued the same approach to school reform for more than a decade. In the churning, fad-filled world of K–12, this makes these states unique.

There Are Lots of Ways Policy Can Help. Advocates tend to fall in love with particular policy prescriptions, but the experience of these states should make clear that policy can spur and support improvement in many different ways. The District benefited from charter school legislation and bold changes to teacher evaluation and pay. Hawaii made do with none of that, because its small size and close-knit culture gave outsized power to informal mechanisms.

It’s About People, Stupid. Education reform tends to treat educators in fairly impersonal terms. But when one talks to key stakeholders in these states, what’s evident is how much time and effort they’ve spent working to humanize their initiatives – not just for children, but for the educators too. While these states are all committed to data-driven decisions, leaders talk about the importance of recognizing and encouraging professionals.

All School Reform Is Local. Successful school reform is inevitably a product of politics, structure, culture and history. This means that what works in one place may not work in another. The D.C. reforms were possible only due to mayoral control. Hawaii’s culture-first approach may work well for an insular, consensus-oriented island state organized as a single district, but not in another context. The lesson is a counsel not of despair but of hope – lots of strategies can work, but they need to be adopted and executed with an eye to local realities.

For those states struggling to set a direction for schools as they regain the reins under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the District and Hawaii provide a disparate but complementary pair of intriguing, instructive models


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