One of the Best Education Books I’ve Read

(Guest Post by Stuart Buck)
And I’ve read quite a few. The book is Barker Bausell’s “Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change”, which just came out from Oxford University Press. Bausell was a biostatistician and professor for many years at the University of Maryland, but he started out in graduate school doing some fascinating educational experiments that showed the irrelevance of teacher training. He brings the perspective of a brilliant outsider.

His main thesis: that the only thing that improves education is spending more time on instruction at a given child’s level. In his words:

All school learning is explained in terms of the amount of relevant instructional time provided to a student.

That’s it: more time + suitability for a child’s level.

This may seem too simplistic at first glance, but Bausell marshalls evidence that his theory explains, well, a lot. Possibly even the achievement gap. Studies of home behavior have shown that middle-class families spend much more time talking and reading to their children at a high level. This is the most elegant explanation for why those children do better in school — they have had much more time devoted to their learning.

Consider too the success of KIPP. This is almost surely because KIPP has kids spend much more time in class. And reducing class size works for many kids (all else being equal), because teachers are able to 1) keep classroom discipline better, and/or 2) give more personal attention, both of which boil down to kids having more time being instructed at their own level.

Bausell also looks at historical studies on teacher quality. From a NY Times op-ed based on the book:

Thirty years ago two studies measured the amount of time teachers spent presenting instruction that matched the prescribed curriculum, at a level students could understand based on previous instruction. The studies found that some teachers were able to deliver as much as 14 more weeks a year of relevant instruction than their less efficient peers.

There was no secret to their success: the efficient teachers hewed closely to the curriculum, maintained strict discipline and minimized non-instructional activities, like conducting unessential classroom business when they should have been focused on the curriculum.

And both studies found that the teachers who taught more were also the teachers who produced students who performed well on standardized tests.

In the book, he describes a fascinating study he did early in his career: designing an elementary math lesson based on a few number theory topics and a test based on the lesson, and then having 15 accredited teachers and 15 undergraduates teach the same lessons for a week to children. It turned out that “there was absolutely no difference . . . between the amount the children learned in the 15 classrooms taught by experienced elementary school teachers and the amount the children learned in the 15 classrooms taught by inexperienced untrained undergraduates” (p. 29). As long as kids were taught the material for the same amount of time, it didn’t matter who was doing the teaching.

Bausell also has a provocative chapter ripping apart the entire industry of standardized tests. He contends that there should be no such thing as tests that aren’t matched perfectly to the curriculum. That is, if time is being spent teaching a certain curriculum, then any test should be based on that curriculum and nothing else. Whenever tests include anything outside of the curriculum (let’s say, a reading passage about snowboarding), they end up measuring something other than what was learned in school — such as one’s experience with snowboarding.

Bausell is scathing in his assessment of what standardized tests tell us:

This would be comparable to receiving a bank statement that tells you only that you have more money in your account than 52% of all U.S. citizens who have a checking account. Although perhaps an interesting piece of trivia, you might want to know a few more details. So, let’s pretend that you decided to call your local bank, which resulted in the following conversation with a help-center employee:
You: I’m glad to know that I have more money than the average person in the country, but what I’d like to know is what my balance is. You see, I have a more pressing concern. What I need to know is how much money I have in my account because I want to buy a mattress.

Help Center: I’m sorry, but we don’t keep records in that manner. We can provide you with an age-equivalent financial score, and we can predict what that score will be upon your retirement. We can even predict what your percentile rank is in terms of property and stocks, based upon your account. If I may be allowed to put you on hold for 45 seconds, I will provide you with all this information.

You: But I need to know how much money I have in my account. I don’t need to know all of this other information. . . .

Now as absurd as this conversation may sound, this is the only type of information that a standardized test is capable of providing. And what does it profit you (or a teacher for that matter) to know how well your child stacked up against other third-graders from Washington State or Florida . . . ?

For one thing, even this odd level of information can be quite misleading if our public schools as a whole are drastically underperforming — which they are. Wouldn’t it make more sense to you and your daughter’s teacher to know what percentage of the curriculum she had mastered? Even better, to inform the two of you exactly what your daughter hadn’t yet learned and how much additional instructional time would be required for her to correct this deficit? (pp. 133-34).

What are his policy prescriptions? Here are most of them; they’re all geared towards increasing the amount of relevant instructional time delivered to each child.

1. Pre-K, using direct instruction rather than constructivist principles (for which Bausell has contempt).

2. Increase the length of the school day, and devote the entire day to relevant instruction (not ‘candy sales, worthless school assemblies, loudspeaker announcements, sports activities, ad nauseam”).

3. Increase the length of the school year.

4. No tolerance for any behavior that prevents or distracts students from learning. (“If this means that we have to leave certain children behind because they can’t meet behavioral expectations (or we don’t know how to enable them to conform), so be it. . . . Schools exist to teach, not to be law enforcement agencies.”).

5. The entire curriculum should be exhaustive and detailed, and computerized tests should be based exclusively on the curriculum.

6. Grades and classrooms should be largely irrelevant, because students should each be learning material at their own level, whatever that happens to be.

7. Teacher behavior should be “monitored constantly to ensure the delivery of sufficient instruction, as well as satisfactory coverage of (and minimal departures from) the established curriculum.”

Bausell adds that the view of the teacher as an autonomous professional is “woefully outdated. Professions such as medicine have largely abandoned this intuition-laced mode of operation for a more evidence-based approach accompanied by practice guidelines. Thoracic surgeons, for example, perform the vast majority of their professional tasks according to rigidly prescribed protocols. Of course, they also don’t have tenure, and they can be sued if their outcomes are substandard, following divergence from these protocols.”

8. Use efficient instructional methods. Bausell points to an example of inefficiency: “my son once had a teacher who had an elaborate class project involving building a medieval castle out of popsicle sticks that stretched over a period of several months. Regardless of what the teacher thought she was accomplishing, this is valuable time wasted . . . unless there is an instructional objective in the curriculum mandating the ‘construction of medieval structures out of popsicle sticks.'”

9. Find lots of free tutors from parents, older students, retired persons, or welfare recipients. A high school diploma “isn’t required to give children (a) practice reading sight words or (b) learning simple mathematical operations via a set of flash cards.”

* * *

All in all, a great and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended.

3 Responses to One of the Best Education Books I’ve Read

  1. matthewladner says:

    This is a very interesting write-up, I’ll have to read the book.

    I think his take on testing is a bit over the top. The truth is that curriculum and the extent to which teachers are following it is all over the map. I would take little comfort if, for instance, every teacher in Arizona were following the Arizona standards exactly, if our students still scored poorly on external barometers like NAEP.

    In other words, I don’t care how you get there as long as you can read and do some math. If his point is that if Arizona had good standards and focused on them that we would have better NAEP scores, I’m with him.

    I do however think that he is very much on to something with his points about time on task and being presented with material on the level of the student. This is part of the great promise of digital learning.

  2. […] Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change by Barker Bausell is the focus for Jay Greene guest-poster Stuart Buck, who calls it “one of the best education books I’ve read” […]

  3. Mitch says:

    “No tolerance for any behavior that prevents or distracts students from learning. (“If this means that we have to leave certain children behind because they can’t meet behavioral expectations (or we don’t know how to enable them to conform), so be it. . . . Schools exist to teach, not to be law enforcement agencies.”).”

    hahahaha. If this is allowed, we’d have much better results. The achievement gap wouldn’t be closed or anything close to it, but kids would be learning and feeling productive. Eduformers don’t understand the degree to which this one problem affects all learning outcomes.

    But that’s never going to be allowed. Three words: disparate impact lawsuits. To say nothing of the fact that law enforcement would scream bloody murder. Low ability kids with attitude problems who aren’t in school are on the street. To a greater extent than we like to think, schools are a holding cell for minor criminals, keeping them off the street until they turn 18.

    Most of the “reforms” mentioned are only reforms for low achieving students, so why not just say so? If you are scoring below basic on standards, then you need more hours a day in school, more direct and detailed direct instruction. Otherwise, you don’t.

    But again, there’s the lawsuits that occur if we do that, because the kids so identified will be disproportionately black and Hispanic. So eduformers try to pretend that EVERYONE will benefit with such treatment, which is utterly moronic, but it skates them past the racist charge. In fact, upper and middle income families will never agree with the methods of educating those with low abilities: force them into it and they’ll leave, going to private schools.

    So there’s the dilemma: what works with low ability kids is ferocious behavior enforcement and strict direct instruction with lots of repetition. But you can’t enforce behavior in public schools without a lawsuit, and you can’t restrict the direct instruction to the low ability kids without a lawsuit. And so charter schools, who can enforce behavior and can use direct instruction because the parents send their kids by choice. High ability kids of suburban parents won’t ever go to KIPP–indeed, won’t go to most charter schools unless they are the high ability haven in a lousy district (cf AIPCS in Oakland). No disparate impact lawsuits.

    Charters only succeed because public schools have to take their rejects and has to educate everyone, not just the kids who need the type of instruction they’re offering.

    The real problem is the lawsuits that will come if we tailor instruction and enforce behavior. Since we can’t, all of this is going nowhere.

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