"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, April 17, 2006

Alan Shoenfeld vs. the Grovers of the World

The March issue of Educational Researcher has Alan Shoenfeld’s account of his disappointing and brief service to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). WWC is a federally-contracted project that is supposedly paying the company, American Institutes for Research (AIR), to cast a wide net in search of quantitative research studies on the effectiveness of various math teaching strategies. These research studies are confined, of course, to the straightjacket definition derived by Grover Whitehurst (not Norquist) and his minions at the Institute of Educational Science (IES), whose experimental, quantitative preference lends itself perfectly to the assessment medium (standardized tests) that shaped the standard to begin with. (Some would call Grover’s experimental or quasi-experimental requirement the “gold standard”—I would call it censorious epistemological thuggery.)

Comparisons of traditional and “standards-based” (read, fuzzy) mathematics teaching strategies will be reached by measuring academic gains as measured by test scores—test scores that could very well be measuring something other than what the teaching strategy in question set out to teach. Unless protocols are developed to make sure that the range of performance results fit the characteristics of math proficiency that are aimed for, the chosen studies could be yielding, in fact, false negatives or false positives on the effects of the various strategies. Too, the evaluation studies that measure the effectiveness of math strategies must take into account the fidelity-to-design issue. In short, studies that adhere strictly to the recommended implementation of a particular strategy should be given more weight than those that are haphazard in implementing a strategy. It was, specifically, these points that Schoenfeld made and that WWC and IES ignored and attempted to censor, that precipitated Schoenfeld’s resignation and subsequent public statements. Schoenfeld's account adds additional weight to the conclusion that AIR has become the Halliburton of the IES's war on any remnant of progressive educational practice: AIR's role is to serve up whatever "research" is called for by their "client," IES, and to keep their mouths shut, otherwise. (See here and here for posts on some of AIR's other work.)

If this sad state of affairs at the base camp for the National Math Panel sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the same shenanigans were developed into a systematic strategy during the sculpting of the National Reading Panel Report to reflect the ideological commitment to the chain gang schools envisioned by neurologist cum education expert, Reid Lyon, and Professor Doug Carnine, the heir apparent to the Engelmann solution. If you think that the cherry-picking of evidence to support pre-conceived conclusions is limited to the initiation of foreign military adventures, you haven’t been paying attention to the reading wars and the math wars.

The reading war, of course, has been largely won (or lost as the case may be), at least from the evidence we have of any organized resistance. The passing out of a billion dollars a year to states in the form of federal Reading First grants, with most of it going to the favored “scientifically-based” phonics approach, guarantees the phonics rebuilding effort will continue across America, even if the conquerors have not been treated as liberators by teachers and students who remember reading as a joy rather than a job. We can rest easy, however, that there are enough mercenaries, er, contractors from AIR on the ground to make sure that these federal reading dollars are spent the way that Grover Whitehurst intended and the way that Doug Carnine and his chums can get rich selling their wares along the way.

Fortunately, we have learned a few things from the manhandling the National Reading Panel Report (see review of Coles's Reading the Naked Truth . . . ). We have learned that these propagandizing bullies will stop at nothing to get their way, and that includes the censoring of knowledge that might intrude upon the preconceived conclusions demanded by their own backwards-gazing form of cultural antiquarianism. Shoenfeld, then, has provided a service to the possibility for democracy's future, because it is the bright light of exposure that will eventually force these totalitarian elements back under the rocks from whence they came.

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