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Alan Singer

Alan Singer

Posted: January 26, 2011 12:44 PM

The gimmick of the month club is alive and well. When I was a New York City high school teacher in the 1980s, on what seemed a monthly basis, teachers received a memorandum from bigwigs at the Board of Education, forward by the school principal, mandating the latest miraculous classroom practice that would solve all learning and discipline problems, as well as unsightly psoriasis (just joking). We called the notices memos from the Gimmick of the Month Club, sat through department meetings where we were briefed on how they were the real thing, and then ignored them until the next solution was forwarded down the pipeline. One of my favorites was when we were ordered to update our lesson plans changing educational objectives (EO's) to Instructional Objectives (IO's). We sat in the department meeting singing Old MacDonald had a farm, eo-io-oh no. Other changes were not so benign, as when millions of dollars were shelled out to purchase the latest "scientifically" proven success guaranteed reading programs such as "Success for All" hawked by a team from John Hopkins University.

Sadly, The New York Times, anxious to find a low-cost miracle cure for what educationally ails us has now become a shill for gimmick of the month snake oil salespeople. An article from January 21, 2011 and an editorial from January 24, 2011 illustrate how wishful thinking have replaced careful consideration and good reporting.

The article titled "To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test", is largely an inaccurate report on recent research on learning sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education and published in the journal Science. The authors of the study made a limited finding that college students in science classes later performed better on tests when teachers make "retrieval practice an integral part of the learning process" Retrieval practice means directed reading that requires students to list facts from the passage or respond to particular questions. Now this is neither new nor revolutionary. In high school teaching, a reading passage or document accompanied by instructions and guiding questions is called an activity sheet and is a standard part of activity-based or constructivist instruction.

There were a number of other problems with the article that should have been caught by the author or an editor. First, retrieval practice requires the memorization of facts and serious studying to establish a knowledge base. The headline is totally misleading. Second, the authors of the scientific study did do not advocate replacing conceptual learning with memorization, but want to see a more inclusive learning approach that recognizes the importance of both acquiring information and problem-solving. Third, the study did not establish that retrieval practice works in the same way for younger less experienced learners, for less motivated learners, or in other subject areas. In addition, it is not clear whether retrieval practice better prepares college students to become scientists or only to be more effective test takers. Clearly, more work needs to be done before "retrieval practice" is proclaimed a panacea and mandated in all classrooms.

The editorial, "Reform and the Teachers' Unions", is the latest in a series promoting school reform, which translates into intensive teaching evaluations leading to disciplinary hearings, firings, an end to seniority, and union-busting. The Times reports that "in many districts, teachers can now be investigated for vaguely worded charges like 'moral turpitude' or 'conduct unbecoming' that are often difficult to define and difficult to prosecute or defend against." The Times is championing a proposal that would establish a clear set of charges for dismissal, "such as improper use of force, sexual abuse or refusal to obey rules." No one wants sexual predators in our classrooms, but dismissing teachers who physically or sexually abuse children has not been the problem. These are crimes and people who commit them, unless they are celebrities, are sent to jail.

The sticky problem is the removal of teachers for "refusal to obey rules." As everybody who has ever held a job knows, most workplace rules are designed to legally protect employers from a suit, for insurance purposes, or to give bosses a club to hold over workers. If they want to get you, they can always get you for refusal to obey an obscure and arbitrarily enforced rule. I have personally known teachers, in almost every case union activists, who were written-up for having windows open, having windows closed, or not reporting broken windows that they didn't know were broken. I was once "written up" for not being at my assigned hall patrol post. The letter was rescinded because I was in the dean's office at the time with students I had brought there because they were fighting in the hall. On another occasion, I was "written up" because I refused to do lunch patrol duty with a security guard who was physically abusing students and was later fired. Curiously, both of these times I was a member of the local union executive committee, though I doubt one has anything to do with the other (just joking again).

I have also witnessed egregious cases where inexperienced and egotistical administrators, a dangerous combination that is increasingly a problem in New York City, issue new "rules" that run counter to sound practice. Last June a young girl drowned when the administrators of a Manhattan middle school insisted that teachers take students on trips without adequate supervision. The teachers and administrators have since been removed.

Welcome to The New York Times version of the "Gimmick of the Month" Club.