Sharon Begley's science column in the latest issue of Newsweek takes on research on education topics, a field where, according to her reporting, very little in the way of properly designed study exists.
She cites a review of more than 100 studies on so-called inquiry-based science instruction—which is learning by doing, like "growing some seedlings in a closet and others on a windowsill to discover photosynthesis rather than being given the concept by the teacher." Most state curriculums favor this type of teaching over just instructing students on a particular concept. The review, however, found that a large percentage of the mass of studies had significant flaws in their design or methodology, such as not randomly assigning subjects to different learning environments. Further, a properly designed study showed there was no difference between the types of learning.
Begley reports similar methodological problems in studies of math curricula, as well.
The people who stand to lose the most because of these poorly designed studies, as well as the curricula designed from their flawed results: teachers.
It goes without saying that effective teaching has many components, from dedication to handling a classroom and understanding how individual students learn. But a major ingredient is the curriculum the school requires them to use. Yet in one of those you've-got-to-be-kidding situations, the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal.
All eyes are definitely on teachers in the battle of school reform, but if they're being given less effective tools to work with, can we really blame them?