No sales left behind

September 24, 2004

UNDER PRESSURE from the sweeping mandates for accountability in the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, public schools across the nation are desperately trying to figure out how to raise their pupils' test scores. In itself, this heightened focus -- on meeting concrete standards and on teaching, testing and reteaching if necessary -- is hardly the wrong way to go. For far too long, American public schools and educators have not been held accountable for ensuring that virtually all children achieve at least certain minimal levels of learning.

But unfortunately, this cranked-up pressure on schools has not yet been accompanied by reliable road maps for how to succeed in meeting the new standards. The Bush administration has mandated strict standards -- with some references to using research-based educational programs, programs that have proved to work. But the effort to conduct scientifically valid research on what works in schools, though gaining a lot of attention and speed in recent years, is just now getting off the ground and will take many years.

So, in the meantime, in most schools, any program that educators happen to merely believe will work more or less still goes, and the predictably poor results are best expressed by the now well-worn line: If medicine were practiced as unscientifically as education, we'd all be long dead. Most research on education programs is still just that bad.

This vast disconnect -- almost grotesque in its consequences for too many children -- underlies the questionable educational practices and waste of precious school system resources outlined this week in Sun reporter Alec MacGillis' three-part series "Poor Schools, Rich Targets." The series detailed how school systems across the country -- including some in Maryland -- are devoting billions of dollars in new federal funding to computer programs that may seem to efficiently teach, test and reteach their students, but that have hardly been shown to be effective.

A competitive federal test of such software is at least two years away from completion. Yet companies are peddling their wares with dishonest claims of valid research and the usual, highly unethical enticements to local educators: junkets large and small, freebies, consultancies. Low-income schools with low-achieving students often are most vulnerable to the misguided notion that their students can succeed via a relatively quick and easy magic bullet, creating a reverse digital divide in which poor areas are awash in this software while better-off districts still rely more on quality teaching by quality teachers.

There's a place in schools for such computer teaching programs -- but only ones that have been shown to be effective in properly run trials. Educators would be wise to insist on such validation, and until then they ought to leave the software vendors behind and devote their limited resources to lower class sizes, better training and rewards for teachers, and proven programs.

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