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THOMPSON: Rigor and Relevance

Simple solutions Perhaps the hypothesis that drives teachers the craziest is the notion that improved instruction and classroom management can solve the completely different problems of truancy and discipline. With their characteristic balance and thoroughness the Chicago School Consortium sorts through these issues in evaluating the Instructional Development System (IDS) in 14 high schools. (Kudos to Catherine Gewertz for supplying the link)  The Consortium writes, "One underlying assumption of the IDS strategy is that if students are engaged with their courses they will come to class. That assumption may be flawed, however. As one  principal said during our site visit: "Attendance is bigger than the curriculum. There are lots of things that keep kids out of school…. Good curriculum helps, buts it’s not the end all be all. Kids come with a lot of other baggage."

At first, nearly 3/4ths of teachers supported the IDS’s effort to improve "rigor and relevance," raising academic standards while seeking improved instruction. The IDS produced mixed results, slightly reducing the failure rate to around 25% and slightly increasing Grade Point Averages, while not improving attendance or test results. But students not only lacked prerequisite academic skills, but they also lacked the soft skills for the group learning methods of IDS.

Additionally, the IDS curricula focuses "on inquiry learning, an area with which both students and teachers have little experience and that may require more support. A science teacher described his students’ resistance: ‘In the beginning of the year I had a lot of resistance. It was a battle with the students trying to convince them ... The class and I argued. They were winning. I’m not teaching anything; we’re just arguing over how I should be teaching.’"

IDS was undercut also by tardiness, the failure of students to bring materials to class, and to relate respectfully with each other. But the Consortium was equally clear in documenting the shortcomings of teachers, and their "less than perfect implementation" of the curriculum. Teacher buy-in was undercut by the lack of evidence of IDS’s effectiveness, and its difficulty in demonstrating how it was different than previous experiments. When dealing with classroom disruptions, 17% of teachers were found to be Unsatisfactory, 43% to be Basic, 37% to be Proficient, and 3% Distinguished. When handling transitions that are so important with inquiry methods, 55% of teachers were judged to be Basic or below. The Consortium also issued another report on the unimpressive record of teachers asking probing questions.

But the purpose of the study is not inflaming the blame game. The Consortium closed with excellent advice. "IDS focuses its support on teachers, .... The need for paying additional attention to student academic and behavioral support may, however, be overshadowing the programmatic changes IDS brings."

We should all heed those carefully crafted words. Engaging pedagogy is hugely important; it is the key to improved classroom instruction; and we have a lot of room for improvement. But to address problems with attendance and behavior, we must focus on the prime causes of problems with attendance and behavior. - John Thompson


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Thanks, John. I always love to read your clear, kind, common-sense, insightful responses.

The question the study raises is, "How can one reform the reformers?" IDS is a grab bag of educational ideology and wishful aspirations. The reality was:

"In most cases, teachers were asked to guide students through curriculum when students lacked mastery of the underlying skills needed to participate. Even though students were underperforming in their previous curriculum, schools [actually it was the Gates Foundation and the school district] gambled on improving student performance through using IDS; they did not know whether it would result in students falling even farther behind than with current methods."

As it turned out, the results WERE worse. This was evident after the first year of implementation, but there were no self-corrections. Instead, the initiative was expanded "as is." Do the unaccountables responsible for the failure get blamed? Nah, the Gates Foundation walks away, and the blame is placed on students, teachers, families, and society.

This is not an isolated instance. It has been replicated for decades and is in the process of being replicated bigger and worser in the "Race to the Top."

I''m not knocking the report. The inquiry was capably conducted and is clearly reported. The report's conclusions leave the unaccountables off the hook, but that is standard educational research practice..

It has become common to argue that students would not skip or disrupt class if only classes were more engaging. Like so many similar pronouncements this is only a partial truth. Thanks for the reminder.

Another issue the Chicago research raises: It takes time to implement meaningful reform strategies. You have to build commitment and capacity. You have to ensure fidelity of implementation without putting teachers in straight jackets. High-speed turnaround strategies, critical as they are, often lose sight of these needs.

That is a great report. What is missing is a calculation of how much money was spent on the IDS initiative (also known as High School Transformation) per student. That number should include the development fees, the cost of the mentors, the cost of the teacher meetings, the sub pay to release teachers for the meetings, etc. After all that money has been spent with no convincing improvement observed compared to non-IDS schools, people should think twice about top-down curriculum replacement initiatives like this.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.