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Magic Elixir: No Evidence required!

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Magic Elixir: No Evidence required!

by Susan Lee Schwartz

"The field of education is awash in conflicting goals, research "wars," and profiteers."  D.T. Willingham

In 1989, I was hired  to teach 'held-back' second-graders to read and write (in a Bronx elementary school) BUT  I had to close my door to teach phonics and  the genuine literacy techniques of pedagogy, even though I had been hired because of my decades of experience and my proven success and knowledge of GENUINE whole language philosophy.  Whole language is a philosophy of  literacy education  based on how the human brain actually acquires language,   and NOT a methodology, yet is was peddled by pseudo-educators selling skills books and curricula materials, because in education, unlike  medicine, evidence is seldom required, and the managers who run the schools are not educators. This is what has changed since I became a practitioner of education (pedagogy) -- a teacher

 Yes, all my kids learned, finally, to read and write... but I had to hide  from the administration, who in the form of the young assistant principal often wandered into my classroom and threatened a file-letter if I was not using the (useless) materials -- which my students could not read but which were mandated by administration.

 She expected them to read by osmosis... I think.

You see, a magic elixir had been purchased by the business people that now ran the NYC Board of Education and "whole-language' -- all the rage in California, -- had come to the largest school system in the nation,  forcing the experience practitioner-teacher to abandon tried-and -true lessons and methods -- or else! 

 Skills books and teacher materials filled the storerooms and shelves; once millions of dollars were spent, we practitioners have no choice... and of course,  will be blamed when Johnny (in this case Leroy and Juanita) cannot read -- or think well enough to work at any complex task. 

Which brings me to  Daniel Willingham's  wonderful piece  "Measured Approach or Magical Elixir? how to Tell Good Science from Bad "  in  The American Educator   which discussed how magical' elixirs --curricular and technology -- are  sold to school districts  because  no one demands EVIDENCE. 

Willingham writes:


"Suppose you're a doctor. You go through medical school and residency, learning the most up-to-date techniques and treatments. Then you go into family practice, and you're an awesome doctor. But science doesn't stand still once you've finished your training. You were up to date the year you graduated, but researchers keep discovering new things. how can you possibly keep up with the latest developments when,  according to  Pubmed.gov 6-19-11 , more than 900,000 articles are published in medical journals each year?

"Medicine has solved this problem for practitioners by publishing annual summaries of research that boil down the findings to recommendations for changes in practice.'   [i.e. evidence] " Physicians can buy summary volumes that let them know whether there is substantial scientific evidence indicating that they ought to change their treatment of a particular condition... in other words, the profession does not expect that practitioners will keep up with the research literature themselves. That job goes to a small set of people who can devote the time needed to it."

 "In  education, there are no federal or state laws protecting consumers from bad educational practices. And education researchers have never united as a field to agree on methods or curricula or practices that have sound scientific backing.   That makes it very difficult for the non-expert simply to look to a panel of experts for the state of the art in education research. There are no universally acknowledged experts. Every parent, administrator, and teacher is on his or her own. "

"The field of education is awash in conflicting goals, research "wars," and profiteers"   Unfortunately, distinguishing between good and bad science is not easy. evaluating whether or not a claim really is supported by good research is like buying a car. There's an optimal solution to the problem, which is to read and digest all of the relevant research, but most of us don't have time to execute the optimal solution"  ... it's hardly news that an educational reform idea attracted serious attention despite the fact that there was no evidence supporting it."  

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I began teaching in 1963,; Ba and BS in Education -Brooklyn College. I have the equivalent of 2 additional Master's, mainly in Literacy Studies and Graphic Design. I was the only seventh grade teacher of English from 1990 -1999 at East Side (more...)

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