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A Hot Beach Debate for Edu-Nerds Like Me

Editor's Note: If you like cool online-polling devices, feel free to skip to the bottom of this column, make some clicks and then circle back for Jay's Take....

Those of us who spend our days mesmerized by discussions of summer learning loss, looping and longitudinal analysis need a summer break, just like everybody else. We are readers, so on vacation we are likely to have a book in our hands, or if we are very old, a newspaper. For me, bestselling thrillers are too predictable and mysteries too complex. I need something different, something weird, something fresh that taps into my essential nerdiness, and I have found it. “Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality,” by Gerald W. Bracey.

The first few chapters are familiar, if you, like me, are a fan of the irascible Bracey and his assaults on the conventionally wise among our education leaders. But in chapter 10 he does something totally unexpected. He resurrects The Eight-Year Study, a 70-year-old corpse, and makes me want to talk about it, even with that guy sprawled out on the next beach towel.

The Eight-Year Study was published in 1942, three years before I was born. That is, to me, a virtue. So few people have heard of it they cannot have any knee-jerk reactions. It was a very large experiment. More than 30 high schools in the 1930s were encouraged to try non-traditional approaches to teaching, like combining Engish and social studies and science into one course, to see how the students who studied that way did when compared to students who did not attend the schools in the study. More than 300 colleges agreed to abandon their traditional admissions procedures in accepting students from the experimental schools.

The results were encouraging to creative teachers, but World War II started, the research team had other duties and no major reforms grew out of their work. Bracey doesn’t let that stop him. He constructs the 10 main lessons from the survey, using provocative terms to set up the debate. Which of these lessons are still relevant? Which have proved to be right and which wrong? Which are most important?

I see in this the makings of a good drinking game, or for us teetotalers a big argument after dinner. Here are the 10 lessons, with some comments by Bracey taken from his book, and some by me. I have left the lessons in the order Bracey used. But I want you to reshuffle them from most important down to least. You might also let me know which of Bracey’s and my comments are most inane. Being nice is boring. Kick sand in our faces. It’s good for us.

1. Like politics, all education is local. Forget state and federal mandates.
Bracey: Some conservative activists advocate national standards and national tests. To the best of my knowledge, no one has shown them to be effective across the board.

Mathews: Education is a heavily local issue, but states provide much of the money these days, and even the feds can be helpful in raising standards where standards have been historically low. Bracey is right. Such standards and tests have not been effective across the board. But they don’t have to be. Some places need them, and some don’t.

2. Education in this nation is, or should be, more about living in a democracy, than about academic achievement.
Bracey: The people who framed the Eight-Year Study might have been dreamers but they were under no illusion that “citizens just happen.”

Mathews: It is an interesting, tricky concept. I think education should be about both achievement and democracy. I would prefer the emphasis be on achievement because I don’t think educators are ever going to be very good at instilling democratic principles. Schools themselves aren’t democracies. The study leaders wanted them to be, but that seems to me unrealistic. Democracy is best learned on the streets.

3. Testing should be a means of learning about individuals, not separating and sorting them.
Bracey: Schools do not teach students how to handle ill-structured problems. It is one desirable educational outcome—and only one of many—that is not tested and not taught.

Mathews: Absolutely right. This is one of the best of the 10.

4. Evaluation should lead to improved curriculum, instruction, and decision making, not to the punishment of teachers and administrators.
Bracey: For [Ralph Tyler, head of the Eight-Year Study evaluation team], evaluation should begin with teachers discussing “what kinds of changes in its pupils the new educational program was expected to facilitate.” [Bracey was quoting from “Stories from the Eight-Year Study,” by Craig Kridel and R.V. Bullough Jr., 2007]

Mathews: Good, although some evaluations could sensibly lead not to punishment of teachers and administrators, but to recommendations for improvement and, possibly, counseling on careers more suited to their talents.

5. Teachers should teach students, not subjects, or, at the very least, not subjects alone.
Bracey: The leaders of the Eight-Year Study also decided that teachers needed to know more about the nature of their students in order to create meaningful learning experiences--specifically more about the nature of adolescence and adolescents.

Mathews: This would go near the top of my list.

6. Principals should be democratically oriented colleagues of teachers, not ‘bosses.’
Bracey: [Quoting the study’s director, Wilfrid Aikin] “The administrators in the participating schools saw that they must create conditions in which teachers dared to be honest in expressing their convictions.”

Mathews: This is exactly right. The best schools I know are run by principals who encourage teamwork, and listen to everybody.

7. Students need to take some responsibility (being accountable) for what they learn (next), and enjoy doing it.
Bracey: The idea that schools should be democratic communities meant that students would need to end their usual roles as passive recipients of instruction.

Mathews: I love the concept, but it may be difficult to achieve with teenagers who have other interests.

8. Scientifically based education is an oxymoron.
Bracey: Here’s why education can never be a science: education deals with sentient beings and each is different.

Mathews: This is right, although American culture is never going to accept it. We believe science can fix almost everything. That is why our most hopeful sentences often begin with these words: “If we can put a man on the moon, we can surely....”

9. Flexibility and a willingness to change course, to do something different, are critical to the educational process.
Bracey: [Summarizing the results of a comparison of graduates of the 30 schools to a control group] The graduates of the Thirty Schools . . . more often demonstrated a high degree of resourcefulness in meeting new situations.

Mathews: To me, this is the best of the 10 principles.

10. “When ends are taken for granted and means dominate educational discourse . . . teachers will rarely be in control of their work, and the reasons given for taking one or another course of action will become increasingly bureaucratic and unsatisfying” (Kridel and Bullough, 2007) This is widely known today as “defensive teaching.”
Bracey: This is not actually a lesson from the Eight-Year Study, but a quote from Kridel and Bullough about our present state. . . . It is hard to imagine a condition further removed from the Eight-Year Study---where principals’ jobs are contingent on getting a specific increased score on a test each year; where teachers follow scripts; where the ends are totally prescribed and even the means highly determined.

Mathews: Bracey is right about the effect test scores can have on principals’ jobs, although I think that is better than allowing them to ignore test scores. Very few teachers follow scripts. Attempts to insist on certain means have broken down in most schools, since new leaders always arrive with different ideas. We have the appearance of prescribed ends with state standards and state tests, but those also change. I think schools are becoming more, not less, independent of these top-down pressures, and principle number 9 is gaining ground.

Do you agree? Reorder the list in ways that make sense to you and tell me why.

By Washington Post Editors  | July 3, 2009; 5:45 AM ET
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Is education a local, state, or federal issue? Yes, it is all three. It should be top priority in every house, every school house, every state house, and the White House.

Democracy versus achievement? You can't participate in our democratic society if you don't have basic knowledge about how ours came to be and how it works. Ask any American student some basic history questions - scary.

The only value of evaluation is improving student outcomes. Test results are only a snapshot, but a valuable one.

The oxymoron of scientifically-based research? True. There are too many variables one can't control. I was just on a team with teachers reviewing a "scienficically-based program" that somehow didn't seen to work for all the children. Education is a messy, difficult, business!

Posted by: edpriority1 | July 3, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

"Bracey: Schools do not teach students how to handle ill-structured problems. It is one desirable educational outcome—and only one of many—that is not tested and not taught.

Mathews: Absolutely right. This is one of the best of the 10. "

Ed schools seem to push the idea that the well posed problems given in math classes in K-12 represent "inauthentic learning" and do not prepare students for the messy, and ill-structured "real world" problems they will encounter later (authentic learning.) Tests based on "authentic" type of problems (i.e., ill-structured) are not likely to reveal much about what a student can or cannot do. This constructivist and ill-informed theory has proved disastrous in math courses in K-12.

Dan Willingham, professor of cognitive science at U of VA argues differently in his article about inflexible learning. (Daniel T. Willingham, “Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise,” American Educator 26, no. 4 7
(2002): 31–33, 48–49.)

So how do you teach students to make such connections; i.e., to think critically? Is it a failure of the math program—or the teacher—if they do not? Willingham argues that understanding the deep structures of a discipline such as mathematics is an important goal of education, “but if students fall short of this, it certainly doesn’t mean that they have acquired mere rote knowledge and are little better than parrots.” Rather, they are making the small
steps necessary to develop better mathematical thinking. Simply put, no one leaps directly from novice to expert. While there is no direct path to learning the thinking skills necessary to apply one’s knowledge and skills to unfamiliar territory, Willingham argues that one way to build a path from inflexible to flexible thinking is to use examples.

Students given well-defined problems that draw upon prior knowledge, are doing much more than simply memorizing algorithmic procedures. They are developing the procedural fluency and understanding that are so essential to mathematics; and they are developing the habits of mind that will continue to serve them well in more
advanced, college level mathematics courses. Poorly-posed problems with multiple “right” answers turn mathematics into a frustrating guessing game. Similarly, problems for which students are expected to discover what they need to know in the process of solving it do little
more than confuse. But well-posed problems that lead students in manageable steps not only provide them the confidence and ability to succeed in math, they also reveal the logical, hierarchical nature of this powerful and rewarding discipline.

For more information on this see my article on discovery learning at .

Posted by: BarryGarelick | July 3, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

" combining Engish and social studies and science into one course"

My district is now doing this in K-5 and has adopted the "middle school model" in grades 6-8, so we'll be doing it there, too.

In K-5, English Language Arts (ELA) and social studies are now taught as a "block." As a result, there is no emphasis on children reading classic works of fiction.

A typical ELA-social studies block assignment: 5th graders read letters written by South American children describing their lives in extremely simple English text that is far below grade level. (I don't know whether the letters were authentic or were part of a packaged curriculum.)

"Cross disciplinary" teaching, which is beloved by the education establishment, has a history, and that history is not good.

Typically, interdisciplinary approaches to K-12 teaching mean that every subject turns into "social studies."

Posted by: cijohn | July 3, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Jay - one core purpose of public schools going back to Jefferson was to prepare people to be citizens in a democratic republic. You should not dismiss it. It is my primary reason for choosing to teach government over other social studies classes.

BTW - I think Bracey's book might be the most important on educational policy I have read in at least the last 2-3 years. I thought so highly of it when I read it that I called the publisher to buy a number of additional copies to give to Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor with a request that they take the time to read through it during the break. At least one is doing so now.

One last comment for now - the goal of education should be to maximize the development of the individual student. Jerome Bruner points out that each student can achieve some level of mastery in each domain, but that level will vary by student and by domain. One reason for the focus on individual students is to maximize what that mastery in that domain will be for that student. That is the argument for focusing first on the student rather than on an arbitrary achievement level.

Posted by: teacherken | July 4, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Bracey is under a severe delusion:

"Bracey: Some conservative activists advocate national standards and national tests."

No Conservatives that I know! It's always the Liberals who endorse the Nanny state and Federal mandates for all.

Posted by: lisamc31 | July 6, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

The abstract of my post "Is Scientifically-based Education an Oxymoron" of 7 July 2009 to the discussion-list AERA-L (American Educational Research Association - Politics and Policy in Education) reads as follows:

ABSTRACT: Jerry Bracey in his book “Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality” listed what he regarded as 10 lessons from the “Eight-Year Study” of 1942, in which more than 30 high schools in the 1930s were encouraged to try non-traditional approaches to teaching. Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews then (a) repeated Bracey's 10 lessons along with comments by Bracey and by himself, and (b) bravely invited his readers to kick sand in the faces of Bracey and himself by letting him know which of the Bracey/Mathews comments were most inane.” Taking Mathews at his word, in my view the most inane Bracey/Mathews comments center around Bracey's Lesson #8 that SCIENTIFICALLY BASED EDUCATION IS AN OXYMORON. If this lesson is correct then it would appear that the following authors all have their heads buried in the sand: David Hestenes (1979), Edward (Joe) Redish (1999), Richard Shavelson & Lisa Towne (2002) and members of the National Academy's "Committee on Scientific Principles for education research," Paula Heron & David Meltzer (2005), Carl Wieman (2007), and Richard Hake (2007).
To access the complete 24 kB post, please click on (or copy and paste into your browser: .

The above abstract only was transmitted to several other discussion-list posts including Jerry Bracey's own EDDRA (Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency) with archives at .

Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University

Posted by: rrhake | July 8, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

With respect to #8, I agree that it is an oxymoron to refer to "scientifically based education," "education science," etc. Education is a not a science. Pointing this out, though, begs the question: if it's not a science, what is it, and what kind of research can advance it? One answer: it's a social science (a key arena for "sentient beings"), and good social science research can advance it. We need to distinguish between aspects of human functioning that are determined by scientific principles (biology, biochemistry, biophysics, etc.) and aspects that are psycho-social. Some politicians point to advances made in medicine and claim that we should be able to make similar advances in education. However, many advances in medicine (such as drug and surgical interventions) lie much more in the areas of human function that are dominated by scientific principles; effective interventions in more psycho-social areas (such as issues of diet and addiction) have proved more challenging. It's not impossible to effect change in psycho-social areas, though, and certainly these areas are important, and good social science research can help us there, in education as well as in medicine. But we need to be clear on which arena -- science or social science -- we're mostly working in, and we need to recognize that when we're working in a social science arena, values come into greater play, and it may be harder for us to come to agreement both on desired goals and how to measure the effectiveness of an intervention.

Re: #5, I encourage you to read Dewey's _The Child and the Curriculum_ -- a really lovely discussion of the work of connecting learners and subject matter, and the centrality of that work in teaching.

Posted by: DLSinCA | July 8, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

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