By John Adsit
5 November 2008
Four decades ago the Coleman Report examined student achievement and concluded that the primary factors for student success belonged to the student—ability and socioeconomic status. The school could not control those conditions of success. Recent research has revealed the fatal methodological flaw in the Coleman study and reversed those findings. The primary factor in student success is now believed to be that student’s teacher.
Coleman compared the average results of schools, without comparing the results of individual teachers within those schools. I once participated in an internal study for a school district. Students had taken a pilot writing assessment in grades 4, 8, and 10. The average results for each of the schools was about the same, and they were consistent with what would be expected for the socioeconomic status of the area—something over 50% of the students were proficient or better. Our research team had access to the raw data, though, and the results were startling. Many of the teachers had more than 80% of their students rated as proficient, and some had 100% proficient. Many of the teachers had fewer than 20% proficient, and some had none at all. (These were all heterogeneous classes.) Not a single teacher had results between 20% and 80%.
Because of this huge disparity in results, it was easy to tell which teachers were in each group when we analyzed the anonymous surveys. Most interestingly, 100% of the low-performing teachers believed that academic success depended upon the abilities of the student, and 100% of the high performing teachers believed that the teacher could make any student successful by applying appropriate instructional techniques to meet that student’s needs.
For much of educational theory, research has shown us what methods are most effective. Convene a meeting of the top theorists in instruction and they will spend their time agreeing with each other. Unfortunately, much of what they will be agreeing on is counterintuitive and non-traditional. School districts must officially adopt them quietly, or the local newspapers will scream that they are destroying education. Even when they are officially adopted, most teachers ignore them and go on as they always have, so nothing actually changes.
At the college level, those theories are rarely even introduced. I was once invited by a prestigious technical college to help them improve their writing program. It did not go well. When I told them my plans, they were aghast and would have none of it. If I were to use those techniques, too many students would be successful, they would earn high grades, and the school would be accused of grade inflation. In higher education, educational excellence is still too often believed to occur in a 400 student lecture hall.
In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen identifies the primary path to student success, and he predicts that technological changes, particularly in the world of online education, will make it possible. The successful teacher diagnoses the learning needs of individual students and makes appropriate adjustments to that student’s learning plan. The truly skilled individual teacher is able to do that in a face to face classroom, but it is not easy. Technological advances to make that possible would indeed disrupt all of education.
That means, though, that these changes must serve those counterintuitive instructional strategies that actually work.
I was approached by a vendor with the technology that would supposedly solve all my online education instructional needs. They had gone into the lecture halls of various colleges and recorded lectures. On your computer you could watch the fascinating talking heads and view the accompanying PowerPoints. Instead of being mind-numbingly bored to tears in a 400 seat lecture hall, you could be mind-numbingly bored to tears in the comfort of your home.
Much of the educational technology I see is imitating the bad instruction that produces poor student achievement. Technology developers must seek out what really works and focus their attention accordingly. I visited such a program recently, and what I saw gave me great hope for the future. As a developer of online education curriculum, I know what kind of technology we need to be successful, and when it comes, it will certainly transform education.
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