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The Academic Achievement Challenge

 by Jeanne Chall

     The Academic Achievement Challenge begins with a chilling example. The late, splendid Jeanne Chall compared two swimming classes. In the teacher-centered class the teacher explicitly teaches five-year-olds. Students followed directions. In the student-centered class the students played around, with some of them merely shivering in a corner.


Composing a 180-page history of education practices is no easy job, but Chall does a tremendous job. Excellent teachers can succeed with traditional or progressive practices--or some mixture of both. She argues, however, the best research evidence suggests traditional teacher practices are better overall for academic achievement, especially for at-risk children and for teachers lacking the skills or personality to successfully implement progressive methods.


Much research is either ignored or selectively chosen to support what educators prefer. A noteworthy examination of 800 studies by Herbert Wahlberg finds important factors include "cues, engagement, [quick] feedback and reinforcement." Also: "frequent testing and quizzes, questioning in science, homework with teacher comments, homework with grades, remedial feedback in science, explicit and direct teaching." Chall argues that these characteristics are more common in teacher-centered classrooms.


The impulses that created the progressive classroom seem obvious. Education should benefit children now and in the future. Many traditional classrooms had a tendency to evolve in stupefying and stultifying directions. Progressive education, unfortunately, often became more mind numbing itself. "Many have turned to open education through insecurity;" writes Roland S. Barth, "they are permissive because they are afraid that if they are strong; the children will reject them." Yet rejection is more probable for open educators. Cultural contradictions fill many ideologies, including progressive education. To wit, a more democratic classroom could lead to a less democratic nation. (Skeptics might conclude that the main purpose of conservative education is producing compliant, ignorant wage-slaves, while the main purpose of liberal education is to produce vacuous, wrongheaded rebels.)


Among the places where the teacher centered and student centered battle takes place is reading, with phonics identified as teacher-centered and whole-language identified as student centered. Chall conducted much research in this area, concluding that many children simply cannot learn well using whole language methods. And this has serious consequences. Not only can children not read their reading class materials, but also they cannot read other subject matter, making them likely to fall behind or fail other classes. Many college students read below a ninth grade level, jeopardizing their ability and willingness to seek out and understand complex thinking. Working hard is a standard that should apply to all students. Bertrand Russell puts it thus: "many things that must be thought about are uninteresting and even those that are interesting at first often become very wearisome before they have been considered as long as is necessary. The power of giving prolonged attention is very important"--and often leads to new interests. Lower standards and poor enforcement often lead to increased boredom.


Chall argues that schools may have improved slightly in the past ten years, but not near as much as they should.


An analysis of schools by Man and Lawrence indicates that the characteristics of good schools include having high standards, solid basic education, and frequent pupil evaluation. Teachers should spend much more time interacting with the whole class rather than with individual students. Enforcement of tough standards at the beginning of the school year immensely helps. Having excellent teachers and principals matters most.


Ms. Chall's work suffers from a lack of specific national recommendations and does not factor in heredity. A national exam required to pass a course might help unite teachers and students in pursuing achievement. Students currently view teachers with high standands as arbitrarily imposing work that stands in the way of students' other goals. Students avoid teachers known to demand achievement. It might be better if students viewed the test as the work of faraway jerks rather than viewing their teachers as jerks.


The current emphasis on readiness, student choice, and individual student differences, especially for young children, finds no fan in Chall. Readiness, studies suggest, can be developed. Standards should be met even if it means summer school. "School factors are the strongest predictors of achievement." Highly Recommended.



-- J.T. Fournier, last updated, July 26, 2009


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