What We Already Know

Recently I read an article about “real world” educational research, written by Dr. Catherine Snow, a senior professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Far from being an ivory tower academic, Snow partners with classroom teachers to design solutions to actual problems of teaching and learning.  As an example, her team of researchers and teachers designed and tested the effects of a supplementary curriculum called “Word Generation,” which teaches students abstract vocabulary and argumentation skills via authentic discussions about vexing real-life dilemmas.  (I believe CPS uses some Word Generation materials.)

In her article, titled “Rigor and Realism: Doing Educational Science in the Real World,” Snow discusses the evolution of educational research, some of which has been of poor quality.  She concludes her article by noting, however: “Frustration arises not just from the vast enterprise of second-rate research, but also from the existence of multiple unexploited findings about things that work, solid knowledge that is not being used.”  (My emphasis.) She offers five examples of this solid knowledge–what we know:

1) Early childhood programs have positive effects on children’s academic development when the teachers demonstrate “rich language skills.”

2) Students are more engaged and learn more in classrooms that provide regular opportunities for authentic discussion about important real-life issues. (Hence the positive effects they found for Word Generation.)

3) When middle and high schools switch their start times to later in the morning, they see increased attendance and greater student interest in school.

4) Typical professional development programs that focus on general principals of teaching are “largely a waste of time and money.”  Effective PDby contrast, is grounded in specific curricula and their specific teaching challenges; i.e. the pedagogical issues associated with teaching math to 2nd graders are different from those associated with teaching writing to 8th graders.

5) Accountability systems based on standardized testing “almost universally encourage dedication of time to unproductive test preparation rather than real teaching.”

Snow’s five examples of “known knowns” (Rumsfeld, D., 2002) suggest the following about our own public school system here in Cambridge:

1) We should ensure that all of our preschool and early elementary classrooms are “rich” language environments where adults and children frequently engage in sustained conversation and adult-supported discussion. This means examining our early elementary grade classrooms to determine if the 24-to-1 student-teacher ratios in some of our 1st and 2nd grade classrooms provide our 6- and 7-year-olds with enough daily opportunities to engage in authentic, embedded, adult-supported conversation.  I.e. how often, during each school day, do our younger grade students talk one-to-one or in a small group with their teacher vs. talking mostly with peers or with their teacher in a large group?

2) We should ask whether any of our upper schools or our high school have start times that are too early for adolescents.

3) We should ensure that our elementary and secondary curricula provide regular opportunities for authentic discussion and debate, and that their teachers support these discussions by explicitly teaching the vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and discussion strategies that are necessary for respectful argumentation.

4) We should ensure that CPS professional development and mentoring  is grounded in actual classroom teaching, which, by definition, is about teaching specific subjects and skills to specific students, whether those are science skills or socioemotional skills. We should also think very carefully about whether we want to follow one of the recommendations in the recent evaluation of our teacher coaching program, which was to eliminate separate literacy and math coaches in favor of generic instructional coaches. Will we end up with a coaching program that doesn’t help teachers improve either their math or their literacy teaching and is “largely a waste of time and money?”

5) We should not convey to the community that the most important measure of the quality of our schools is test scores, or that the schools with higher scores are “better schools,” those with lower scores”worse schools.” We should also not convey to our principals and teachers that their most important goal is to deliver high test scores.  We do not want precious classroom time spent on “unproductive test preparation,” we want it spent on “real teaching.”

Number Five was underscored for me by the recent comments of a CPS parent at a School Committee meeting about the PARCC assessment.  Talking about an event at her child’s school, she described the principal as presenting “slide after slide”of MCAS scores: “The message for me was that testing and improving test scores was not one of the goals of the school, but the goal of the school, and that my child would spend the next five years improving test scores so someone’s contract would be renewed.” A chilling thought.

As a community, we make small decisions every day that add up to a bigger picture of what we want our students to learn and how, what skills we think are most important, and what we think is the purpose of our public schools. I hope that CPS parents and other members of the community will continue to help the administration and School Committee make good decisions as we move forward.

Emily Dexter
Cambridge School Committee Member Elect

Please note: The text of Catherine Snow’s article appears in the December 2015 issue of the journal Educational Researcher.  It is actually a reprint of a lecture she gave as the invited speaker for the 2014 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture.


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