Why Schools of One Are Our Future



By 02/23/2011

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Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change
by R. Barker Bausell
(Oxford, 256 pp., $22.95)

Too Simple to Fail, a new book from Oxford University Press, is a review of thirty years of research into how children learn and what would give us better results. The author, R. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician in the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland, has come to the conclusion that classroom instruction is hopelessly obsolete, and that the answer to the deficiencies of our educational system is the tutorial model.

As a graduate of Oxbridge, with its time-honored tutorial system, it would be difficult for me to dispute Dr. Bausell’s central premise—that one-on-one instruction is the best guarantor of improved academic performance. Of course, this would involve displacing or at least supplementing the traditional 1:35 student:teacher ratio of the conventional classroom. But Dr. Bausell’s exhaustive research summary leaves one with no other plausible conclusion.

Dr. Bausell provides a comprehensive analysis of the lessons to be drawn from classic schooling research.  Among the more salient conclusions are: 1)  that what children bring to school is vastly more important than what happens thereafter, as the Coleman Report found; 2) in examining all of the variables that impinge on student academic performance (teacher effectiveness, socio-economic advantage, appropriate evaluation criteria, etc.), none is demonstrably more significant than time spent learning“one-on-one”; and 3) that only an individualized computer program can address all these issues effectively and simultaneously.

Though the reader is left to infer that such “one-on-one” computerized instruction is equally effective for all grade levels, one wonders whether the inculcation of basic skills and the more sophisticated analysis presupposed of high school students would respond equally well to this computerized approach. Notwithstanding, “one-on-one” appears to be the only way to go if we are really serious about eliminating the so-called “achievement gap”. However, equally obviously, it is the marriage of technology to the individual tutorial which makes it all possible from an economic point of view.

What does Dr. Bausell see as the main flaws in the current educational system?

(1)   Traditional class size is an almost insurmountable barrier to academic improvement given the diversity of attributes/liabilities students bring with them.

(2)   Despite research recommendations in favor of phonics, effective phonics-based systems for elementary reading instruction are conspicuous by their absence.

(3)   The irrelevance of most teacher college instruction to the real classroom is striking: clinical approaches are discounted in favor of misguided theory.  In fact the author’s experiments support the idea that teachers who are trained in the traditional fashion are no more effective than neophytes in the field.

(4)   That, albeit a relatively limited number of cognoscenti, some people are beginning to understand that in less highly developed countries the incentive for students to excel is far greater. Simply put, America is not competitive in world markets from an educational point of view.

(5)   The irrelevance of many standardized tests to the curriculum that is being taught. (Historically standardized tests, like the SAT, are thinly-veiled intelligence tests designed as a device to sort out for college bound population: not to assess levels of achievement in subject matter areas.)

What does the author see as an indication that things are changing for the better?

(1)   The significant increase in the student-computer ratio nationally. There are simply more computers in the schools.

(2)   The current national interest in defining instructional objectives across state boundaries (i.e. burgeoning national standards).

(3)   The growing recognition that current testing practices have emasculated rather than enriched the curriculum.

(4)   The success of the K.I.P.P. schools is vivid testament to the importance of longer school days and more of them. Time on task, as suggested earlier, really works. After all the present system was designed to accommodate an agrarian economy.

However, the most compelling section of Dr. Bausell’s book is the chapter entitled “Getting There from Here.” Dr Bausell envisages a world where the obsolete classroom model gives way to a laboratory “in which digital tutoring constitutes the bulk of the instruction delivered.” He concedes that for a change to take place of this magnitude, both the federal government and a plethora of philanthropic sources would have to provide the initial funding.

His road-map includes:

(1)   Creation of a complete set of instructional objectives representing the elementary school curriculum, accompanied by sample test questions for each objective.

(2)   A standard software platform-template by which these objectives could be taught.

(2)   Securing computer hardware involving networking within each classroom.

(3)   Development of computer-generated tests with items to assess mastery of every conceivable school topic.

To summarize, as does Dr. Bausell:“The only way to increase school learning is to increase the amount of relevant instructional time we provide our children.” The only way to achieve this is to marry technology to instruction thereby developing economies of scale, and vastly enhanced efficiency in terms of results. Let’s get on with it!

A. Graham Down