First, Do No Harm

Shepard Barbash

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by City Journal on May 27, 2021, and is crossposted here with permission.


I am going to play the role of the radical skeptic. My position is that the Next Generation Science Standards, adopted by many states to tell their K-12 teachers how to teach science, is just the latest example of our failure to do the impossible. We should not engage with the NGSS or attempt to improve them; we should instead dismiss them out of hand and expose the flawed premises that led to their creation.

I’ll begin with an analogy. A few years back, I went on one of those State Department-approved tours to Havana, Cuba. We were there to look at architecture. At the time, the Cuban regime had just begun letting private citizens open their own restaurants—a bold step for a socialist country. We went to a few of these places, and they weren’t bad. But each proprietor had to submit his menu to the government for approval. As often as not, the government would demand changes: cut out that beef dish because the country doesn’t have enough beef, add more fish and vegan dishes because they’re healthier, and so on.

Feeling very smug and superior, our little group of Americans laughed at how preposterous it was for the state to be micromanaging menus and restricting people’s choices in this way. A party apparatchik telling a cook in a street-corner café what he can and can’t cook for his customers? Ridiculous.

But as I listened to one of the chefs complain, I suddenly realized he sounded an awful lot like one of my favorite school superintendents, who would complain about what he had to go through to run a decent school in the U.S. Our governments do pretty much the same thing to K-12 schools that the Cuban government does to its restaurants, except our governments micromanage what we put into our minds—and not just what, but how and when. That’s what government-mandated standards do.

God forbid you try to dissent from any of these standards and teach something else, or even just teach the standards in a different order. You’ll be punished, just as surely as that Cuban chef will be punished for putting something on the menu his government hasn’t blessed. Our government subjects your students to a series of tests to make sure you’re teaching what you’re supposed to be teaching, and it calls you out if they don’t do well on those tests.

This approach to accountability in education has demonstrably failed. State standards, despite repeated efforts over many years to strengthen them, have failed to improve student achievement. The reason they have failed is that they are untested products, founded on unproven theories and created in a committee process that is unscientific. (It’s ironic that this should be true even for science standards.)

So long as committees keep writing standards that are not based on empirical evidence of what things children can learn, and what instructional procedures cause them to learn, the result will be the same: a potpourri of reasonable requirements and nonsense.

What’s worse is that these untested products crowd out methods that have been proven to work. I wrote a book about Siegfried Engelmann, whose Direct Instruction (DI) programs have been largely blocked from the market despite 50 years of evidence that they accelerate student learning more than any set of standards ever has.

DI works because it is a product of the scientific method. Hundreds of field-tested components go into Engelmann’s programs. All must be scrupulously followed to accelerate student learning. These are mind-numbing details that no government or blue-ribbon panel could possibly be expected to figure out, much less impose on others in a democracy. So what do we get instead? Lists and slogans and 600-page tomes like NGSS that never really reduce into precise instructions for teachers in the classroom.

One of Engelmann’s field tests found that most teachers don’t really know how to teach concepts or rules—the things standards typically describe. Typically, the teacher talks about the concept or rule, but doesn’t reduce it to the necessary exercises, tasks, and extensions that actually teach it. Engelmann presented more than 50 teachers with the following assignment: “Teach your kid the rule that liquids and gases move from a place of high pressure to a place of low pressure.” The basic teaching would involve presenting the rule, having the kids say it, and then having them apply the rule to a series of simple examples. So you’d have a diagram that showed a place of high pressure and a place of low pressure, and you’d have the kids draw an arrow showing the direction of movement. Then you’d have another diagram that showed the arrows indicating the direction of movement, and you’d have the kids label the high-pressure zone and the low-pressure zone. Easy, right? Not a single teacher in Engelmann’s study came close to doing this. Most talked about the “water cycle” or did some whimsical experiments that did nothing but consume time and confuse the students. None of them taught the kids the concept.

Has any standards-writing committee ever done even a single experiment like this to test the theory that their standards lead to more effective textbooks, training, and teaching? If they did, they’d find out very quickly that even the most sensible standard or set of standards doesn’t get you very far. Teachers, trainers, and textbook publishers need a much more detailed roadmap than any standards regime can possibly provide.

A little humility is therefore in order. States should take the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. They should get out of the standards-writing business entirely. The only thing I would trust states to do is to compile a list of norm-referenced tests in reading, math, and science, and require districts to choose at least one of each to give their students every year. Then publish the results for all to see.

If a state wanted to do more, it might devise a way to rank schools by their results on these tests. But even that might be too much to ask: there are lots of ways you could screw it up, and the political opposition to such a scheme would be intense, because schools hate being publicly judged and compared to one another with rigorous metrics that can’t be gamed. Perhaps states could identify just the top performers and reward them with money or public praise.

None of what I’m describing would improve student achievement much, but it would at least save taxpayers some money. It would also spare the fine authors of reports like Climbing Down the thankless task of putting volumes of irrelevant verbiage like the NGSS under the microscope. Let someone else debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In the smorgasbord we call education reform, we have bigger fish to fry.


Shepard Barbash is author of Clear Teaching and former bureau chief in Mexico City for the Houston Chronicle.

Image: Katerina Holmes, Public Domain

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