How fashion frustrates school improvement
James P. Comer is one of the most successful school improvement experts in the country, but that doesn’t mean he gets much respect. Policy makers often resist his ideas. Take, for example, the Midwestern elementary school that went from 23rd to first in its district by using the School Development Program created by Comer and his Yale colleagues.
Did the school district leaders celebrate and recommend the program far and wide? No. They appear to have been disturbed by the results. They accused the school of cheating and insisted on a re-test, with local newspapers suggesting scandal. The students did even better the second time, but that did not win Comer’s team any plaudits. The superintendent removed the principal who had done so well with their methods and installed a new staff not trained to use them, bringing the scores back down to where the district leadership apparently thought they should be.
Comer, a child psychiatrist, has spent 40 years studying how attention to child and adolescent development—such as cognitive growth, social skills, emotional stability and ethical understanding---can improve learning in public schools. Schools using the School Development Program in Asheville, N.C., saw the portion of black fifth graders who tested proficient in reading climb from 50 to 90 percent in five years. Reading and math scores in community school district 17 in New York City and Westbury Community School District on Long Island significantly surpassed state averages after the program was introduced.
Yet, despite their successes, Comer and his colleagues have seen school districts
drop their program and foundations decline to renew their grants. In many instances, the reasons appear no more substantial than a desire to try something new.
In the music and clothing industries, ideas have a shelf life. New approaches are embraced for their novelty. Fashion rules. Changes occur often. That’s fine for those enterprises. But is it a good idea to write off successful school programs just because they have been around for a while?
Independent studies have identified other programs, such as Success For All, developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert E. Slavin and Nancy A. Madden in the 1980s, or Direct Instruction, designed in the 1960s by University of Oregon researchers Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, as among the most effective for raising the achievement of elementary school students, particularly those from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. But like Comer’s program, they are not mentioned very often these days at education conferences or school turnaround strategy meetings.
Still, Success for All was endorsed last month by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which completed a 13-year, $20 million study of school improvement models. Debra Viadero reported in Education Week that Success for All students moved, on average, from the 40th to the 50th percentile in reading between kindergarten and the end of second grade. The consortium report said Success for All and another program, America’s Choice, showed the greatest gains when teachers adhered closely to the program designers' recommendations.
Uh oh. Asking teachers to follow certain procedures is one of those old-fashioned approaches that have fallen out of favor. Many experts argue, often convincingly, that teachers know their students better than the program creators and should do what they think best.
That’s fine. Some of the best public schools I know encourage instructors to follow their own ideas and share results with colleagues. But those schools also demand that methods that don’t work be quickly discarded.
In 2002, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Johns Hopkins analyzed the 29 most widely implemented comprehensive school reform models. They identified Comer’s program, as well as Success for All and Direct Instruction, as the only ones that had clearly established, in various situations and study designs, that they significantly improved student test scores.
Of course, test scores aren’t everything. But they are something. I would be reluctant as a parent to trust my child to a school that did not give quantitative measures some credence.
So I applaud the rise of schools designed to let teachers do what works for them, with the understanding that they have to produce results. Such educators are less likely to ignore what works than the policymakers who turn their backs on programs like Comer’s.
[During its ten years at washingtonpost.com, this column has always taken the New Year's holiday off so the columnist can root for football teams that usually lose. We will honor that tradition once again. Go Broncos. The next trends column appears Jan. 8.]
For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education.
For more from Jay, go to http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle
| December 25, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Direct Instruction, James P. Comer, School Development Program, Success for All, child and adolescent development, school improvement
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