Education policy fights don’t focus enough on teaching and learning

It’s the classroom, stupid.

In this Oct. 1, 2013, file photo, Amy Lawson, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., teaches an English language arts lesson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File
In this Oct. 1, 2013, file photo, Amy Lawson, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del., teaches an English language arts lesson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File

The effort to improve the nation’s schools has a gaping blind spot: It doesn’t focus enough on what happens in classrooms. Far more needs to be done to improve teaching and learning.

Most school reform headlines focus on a pretty narrow area of policy. The latest voucher study will spark fierce debates, while pundits write heated op-eds on the benefits of non-elected school boards. In Denver, discussions of charter schools funding dominate the education debate. In Los Angeles, the conversation is all about school choice.

These issues are important. Private school vouchers could decimate the nation’s public school system. But just about all of these policy debates revolve around a limited set of governance issues and don’t touch on ways to improve everyday classroom practice.

This administration-heavy approach to reform stands in contrast to the research, and a growing body of evidence — and, really, common sense — suggests that instructional reform can dramatically improve learning. A forthcoming study by researcher Chris Schunn shows that curriculum changes, such as spacing out content, can provide a large boost to student outcomes. Inexpensive online professional development could improve test-scores as much as lowering class size, according to a paper released last year by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin.

But efforts to improve instruction don’t gain much political traction. They’re too nuanced, too subtle, and too much about the intricate craft of teaching. In contrast, governance-related proposals easily become political footballs, something that motivates voters.

For their part, Republicans have a set of education issues that do well with their base. If a GOP policymaker comes into office, they’ll talk about free markets and promote vouchers and tax credits. In contrast, Democrats talk about opportunity and advocate for more school funding, new academic programs, and free college.

Whatever the merits of these policy proposals — and there are many — they generally overlook the nature of teaching and learning. They ignore the growing body of science on how people best acquire new skills and knowledge.

Textbook reform is a great example: In my research with colleagues, I’ve found that curriculum changes can provides tremendous gains for students. Indeed, switching textbooks can provide the same academics gains as moving from an average teacher to a great teacher. But policymakers rarely use textbooks as a lever to improve teaching and learning.

What’s worse, the polarized nature of today’s politics works to corrode the few efforts that might actually improve classroom practice. Consider the Common Core standards. In the early years of the initiative, policymakers on the left and right praised the effort to create a common set of academic expectations. Many believed that the standards would help instruction by defining clear academics goals for students.

But the standards soon became another political football. Many Republicans began attacking the Common Core, arguing it was “government overreach,” and public opinion soon began to dip. This meant that many teachers didn’t get enough training, and some educators still feel like they lack instructional support for the new academic expectations, according to a recent study.

The media is to blame, too, and reporters are often more interested in political debates than covering better ways for teachers to teach. I recently finished a book on the new research on learning, and sometimes I had a hard time pitching the topic to education reporters. Indeed, one journalist told me that I should pitch the book to the science desk instead of the education desk.

It’s easier to pass a law than change the culture of a classroom, and efforts to improve teaching and learning are difficult endeavors. It’s a matter of shifting day-to-day practice, and that means a lot of time and training. Instructional reforms also require political capital, as policymakers have to defend curricular shifts.

Some policymakers have taken up the cause. States like New York have helped develop next-generation instructional tools, while Louisiana has been evaluating curricula to help educators sort the textbook wheat from the textbook chaff. A few years ago, the American Federation of Teachers began an online effort to support better curricula, while, my employer, the Center for American Progress, created a thoughtful campaign to professionalize the teaching workforce called TeachStrong.

But it’s not enough, and in the end, education policymakers and pundits have to come to terms with the fact that thoughtful school reform needs to start — and end — with improving classroom practice.

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of the forthcoming book Learn Better.

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