Second-Class Science

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, May 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Second-Class Science


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

Education research gets an F.

Since holding teachers responsible for student performance is now all the rage, from the White House to the political right, let us do a simple thought experiment. Imagine an amateur baseball league in which team owners dictate which bats players use. The owners try to choose the best, but the research on bats is so poor, they have to rely on anecdotes--"Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs with maple!"--and on manufacturers' claims. As a result, some teams wind up using bats that are too heavy, too fragile, or no better than a broomstick. Does it make sense to cut players who were forced to use ineffective equipment?

It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use. Yet in one of those you've-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal. As pay-for-performance spreads, we will therefore be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats. "There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works," says William Cobern of Western Michigan University. "It's a crazy situation."

Cobern tried to fix that in a study comparing direct instruction with inquiry learning, competing ways to teach science. The smart money has been on the latter, in which students explore a question on their own by, say, growing some seedlings in a closet and others on a windowsill to discover photosynthesis rather than being given the concept by the teacher. Cobern's team randomly assigned 180 eighth graders (randomization is the gold standard for research, as in trials for new drugs) to one or the other form of instruction, they report in a study published in Research in Science & Technological Education in April. Contrary to received wisdom, "as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as inquiry-based teaching" in how well kids learn science concepts, he told me. Yet national and state standards push inquiry learning. As Cobern's team diplomatically put it, "Some claims for inquiry methods regarding understanding the nature of science are not sufficiently supported by evidence.

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