June 13, 1998
There's a humorous turn on an old adage that's been circulating from podiums in recent months. If a person is in the woods and makes a statement, and the spouse is not there to hear it, is it still wrong? A similar question could be asked about most of the research on school reform underway in universities and educational think-tanks throughout the country. The question is: If the researchers only share their work with each other, does it have any impact?
When SchoolMatch first started its work in 1985, many of our colleagues in the academic establishment looked at us with a jaundiced eye. "Let me get this straight - you're going to rate schools using demographic cohorts, compare districts with others of comparable parent education level, partner with newspapers and corporations to conduct effectiveness audits, develop a website with about a million hits a month and write columns for newspapers and magazines read by the general public." This skepticism is what we've been able to read—over the last thirteen years—into the questions of others who had spent years researching dissertations, conducting case studies and pursuing purely academic research.
Today, people are getting the message. For example, many citizens now know the research indicates children from homes of well-educated parents have huge advantages over others in the schooling process. They also are aware of the negative impact which poverty can have on one's ability to learn.
It has been comforting to see the marked similarity between new state education agency school district "report cards" forthcoming in Ohio, Vermont and elsewhere to those we developed over twelve years ago. Some states are developing cohort groups which use statewide data to attempt to replicate those in our national cohort groups. Although state education departments sometimes still confuse dependent and independent variables, great progress is being made in comparing similar districts.
Meanwhile in the Halls of Ivy, scholars have been studying learning styles for over two decades. They have also proven conclusively that time of day makes a significant difference in how children perform in school and on tests. They've talked to each other, published books and scholarly journals. Their work, however, has had little noticeable impact on the schooling process. High school juniors continue get up early on Saturday mornings to take their college entrance examinations. Similarly, many teens have a school day that ends about two hours after the time when they would like to be waking up.
Our point is that while the public is becoming more knowledgeable about some important factors in education, most academic research on school reform is being ignored. And, regrettably, much of what is being touted publicly is not academically sound or research-based. An illustration is a recently released U.S. Department of Education report to the national media revealing that students who take algebra and geometry in high school are more likely to succeed in college than those that don't take pre-college mathematics. Has our government not spent our tax dollars to prove a self-evident point?
Another example of publicly acclaimed but academically weak "research" is in the plethora of "customer satisfaction surveys" which assess schools the same way one evaluates restaurants – stake-holder approval. There's no evidence these "studies" blend any relationship to the research on effective schools into their conclusions, nor any hard outcome data.
The good news is there are a number of academically qualified researchers who are getting a good deal of media attention in the school reform arena. Their efforts are bringing new knowledge about systemic change to parents and interested citizens. In our travels throughout the country conducting school site visitations and performance audits, we see increasing understanding of the issues by involved citizens. Those interested in learning more about school reform and its practical applications can increase their awareness by reading or listening to leaders in this field such as:
* Dr. Alonzo A. Crim, Professor of Education, Spellman College, Former Superintendent of Schools in Atlanta (GA), and Senior SchoolMatch Consultant - advocating allocation of school resources and time based upon student needs.
* Dr. Denis P. Doyle, Senior Research Fellow, Hudson Institute - describing the process and content of standards-driven school reform.
* Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor and Director, Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education - providing an understanding of how individual students learn differently.
* Dr. Jane Hannaway, Professor of Education at Stanford University where she directs the Master's program in Policy Analysis - providing alternative frameworks for understanding decentralized management of schools.
* Dr. Eric A. Hanushek, Economist, University of Rochester - relationships between school resources and student achievement. Improving performance and controlling costs.
* Dr. David Matthews, President, Charles F. Kettering Foundation - designing ways to involve the public in school decision-making.
* Dr. Thomas J. Sergiovanni, Radford Professor of Educational Administration at Trinity University - designing educational communities for learning.
* Dr. Theodore R. Sizer, Professor and Chairman, Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University - sorting out basic issues of what it means to be well educated, who the recipients of education should be and how best to provide their education.
* Dr. Robert E. Slaven, Co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students at Risk, Johns Hopkins University - using field tested research to show proven effectiveness in raising student achievement.
* Dr. M. Donald Thomas, Former Superintendent of Schools in Salt Lake City (UT) and SchoolMatch Advisory Board Chairman - using demographic-based standards to provide a framework for measuring school effectiveness.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of American school reformers. It is illustrative of those who seem to be doing the best job in getting their message to the general public or understanding the importance of public involvement in the process.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data