Response - “Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change” by R. Barker Bausell

Oh, the Education Reform folks are at it again touting a little 2010 doublespeak appeal to common folk sensibilities while promoting wild, harmful ideas for American public education. Who doesn’t get excited by a sexy title like “Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change,” by R. Barker Bausell? Unfortunately, Bausell’s argument is foundationally flawed in its dismissal of the importance of teacher training. Teacher training is one of the most relevant components of improving instructional quality; spending more time in a classroom led by an untrained teacher who lacks classroom management, pedagogical knowledge, or instructional delivery skill sets is detrimental to students. That the primary source of support for his argument is to point to KIPP schools as models of reform is problematic; Bausell fails to consider how the student application and selection processes, small class sizes, and high levels of parental commitment play into any measure of student success at charter schools like KIPP. Instead of considering the aforementioned known contributors to student achievement, Bausell attributes KIPP “success” to more time in class (also note that the quantifiers this biostatistician uses to define educational “success” at KIPP schools remain unclear).

Bausell at once praises standardized testing then lambasts it. He rails against the fact that these darn standardized tests aren’t measuring a standardized curriculum – then he asserts that good teachers are those who never deviate from a prescribed curriculum (designed by disconnected corporate interest groups with little background in curricular or human development); this is more of the same nonsense thinking that seeks to reduce teachers to technicians who deliver testing outcomes. The idea that anybody can jump into a classroom and effectively deliver instruction is preposterous and I invite Bausell to go beyond the limited scope of his experimental study and evaluate the success of multiple lessons across subject areas in a few urban schools. Please note that his study essentially involved drilling math concepts for an extended period of time and measuring student short term recall of drilled concepts. This isn’t the “learning” I want to practice or promote.

At the end of the day, Bausell argues for making the content of standardized tests more congruent with what is actually taught in schools; in his learning utopia, teacher-technicians would then spending more time simply teaching to the tests and we would all see a success – if we could just standardize everything then robo-teachers will deliver the lessons and good student workers will posthaste fill in the correct corresponding bubbles that their corporate overlords have deemed essential truths. If this is the “success” we’re racing to the top for… if this is how we will measure innovation and creativity and critical thinking, there is great concern for us all.

Bausell’s Policy Prescriptions

Bausell’s suggestion that Pre-K instruction should solely rely on direct instruction demonstrates his lack of understanding of Pre-K developmental and instructional needs. Pre-K instruction needs a skillful blend of direct instruction and constructivist instructional design with primary emphasis on the constructivist aspect. Even follow ups to the HighScope studies show that urban, economically disadvantaged students who solely receive direct instruction in preschool become more academically disengaged, actually perform at lower levels, and suffer from more social and discipline problems. I can speak on the benefits of constructivist and/or blended models of teaching for this age group at length, but there is not space here.

More time is not needed; quality time is needed with well-trained teaching professionals. Even Finland and other countries that are widely regarded as educational success stories have shorter days and shorter school years. The solution is not to “learn-them-to-death” and “beat-and-drill-it-into-them” until they spit it back at us.

The attacks on teacher autonomy and calls for hyper-monitoring of compliance to a prescribed and scripted curriculum shows what Bausell is really all about, and it’s nothing good for schools. The idea that just about anyone can jump into a classroom and “make students learn” is misguided.

The bottom line is that the individualized computer program vision Bausell puts forth for education as some sort of Skinnerian Teaching Machine endeavor, replete with programmed instruction that students sit and endlessly punch away at for extended hours until they earn rewards for correct responses is harrowing. The suggestions that teachers are disposable and teacher training does not matter are #moreoftthesame denigrating and dangerous rhetoric we have come to expect from Bausell and his kind.

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