We need to know what works Research: School officials lack solid, scientific data for choosing teaching techniques and materials.


THE GREAT educator John Dewey is said to have coined the phrase "laboratory school" when he founded an elementary school on the campus of the University of Chicago 102 years ago.

Dewey was concerned that education on his campus wasn't getting the same attention as the hard sciences. He wanted a place where professors could conduct research under tightly controlled conditions over long periods -- the definition of a laboratory.

More than a century later, J. Tyson Tildon, chairman of the city school board, lamented recently the lack of solid research to back up the textbook series proposed for Baltimore elementary school reading classrooms.

In addition to his unpaid school board job, Tildon is a biochemist and professor of pediatrics. And Tildon has learned that reliable, long-term, scientifically based research is hard to come by in education, particularly in reading.

Indeed, Tildon would have to resign in disgrace if the University of Maryland Medical School, where he's employed, conducted medical research as sloppy and unreliable as much of that conducted in reading.

Why is this so?

Long-term research on the same group of children is extremely difficult. Children switch schools, or simply disappear. Education management changes constantly at schools and central offices. Philosophies come and go. So do grants from foundations, governments and others.

Education is still not a science. Much of what passes for research is opinion used to back up this or that theory. You see it in the citations, including names and dates, in education research papers. Many researchers cite previous research by themselves (Manny, 1979), by their friends (Moe, 1995) or by those who agree with them (Jack, 1997).

Much of education research isn't independently conducted, and self-reported by those promoting programs or selling textbooks.

A classic example occurred in the recent round of textbook purchases by the city school board. Asked for evidence that its reading series works, Houghton Mifflin Co. cited results from the first year of a five-year "longitudinal" study. Two of the three people conducting the study are authors of the textbooks. (The city board eventually approved the series for use in grades three through five.)

The war between "phonics" and "whole language" instruction makes it difficult to believe anyone or any research because nearly all the major players are in one camp or the other. No matter the care taken in a research project, no matter the scientific principles applied, its findings will be attacked, often viciously and in personal terms.

Textbook publishers always claim that their wares have been "field-tested," but in reality most of them haven't been tried in large-scale, carefully crafted studies. The publishers don't have to worry about field-testing. Districts buy their books anyway, without asking hard questions about their proven effectiveness.

This is not to say that there isn't good reading research out there. Project Follow Through, the largest, most expensive research study in the history of education, is an example. Conducted independently but financed by the federal government, Follow Through studied 70,000 children, most of them poor, in more than 180 schools for nearly 30 years at a cost of some $1 billion.

Yet educators are still squabbling over the Follow Through study, its design and its findings. Moreover, "direct instruction," the model of reading teaching that Follow Through found most effective among nine programs, hasn't exactly swept the nation. It's in a scattering of schools, mostly in inner cities (including Baltimore), and is unpopular among teachers.

The Follow Through study got its last funding in 1995. The only other large-scale research still being conducted is also funded by the federal government. It's under the auspices of scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, who have been looking at the reading behavior of 10,000 children since 1983.

In education, that's a long shelf life, but since NIH research findings tend to support the arguments of phonics proponents, G. Reid Lyon, the neuropsychologist who runs the NIH operation, is routinely vilified in the whole-language camp.

Then, too, there's the fact that Lyon and most of his colleagues in universities are scientists. It's galling to some educators that scientists are getting most of the research attention these days. (Wiser educators are looking for information about the NIH research, which they usually won't find on file at education colleges.)

Lyon isn't bothered by the criticism. He thinks it's entirely appropriate that the widespread failure to read in the U.S. is considered a health problem legitimately addressed by scientists.

Which brings us back around the circle to J. Tyson Tildon, John Dewey and his laboratory school.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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