School madness

Lessons for reformers from the NCAA Tournament

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

Now that we're into March Madness-the NCAA basketball tournament-we're learning once again the vital lesson that drilling in the fundamentals pays off.

Lots of basketball stars can make fantastic plays. Some college coaches recruit well, initially, by promising not to cramp the freewheeling style of high-school heroes. But the coaches who win, year after year, are those able to discipline young anarchists.

Watch this month as teams advance to the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, and the Final Four. They'll be fundamentally solid in blocking out, setting picks, playing tough defense, and doing everything else that makes up the breakfasts of champions. The players will acknowledge that practices were hard, but they like becoming winners.

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With all the talk of educational reform this past year, I wonder if we've applied March Madness lessons to today's crazy quilt of theories about how to have better elementary schools, particularly in poor areas. The liberal view that elementary-school children are eager to learn reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, and that the job of teachers is to facilitate kids' explorations and not get in their way, is still very much with us.

Some highly motivated students (often from affluent, two-educated-parent homes) can thrive in a loose environment, but the educational research I've been looking at, in publications like the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, suggests that many kids from poor, single-parent homes can't be left free to explore, because they're already lost. They need lots of drill in the basics and lots of praise when they show clearly measurable accomplishment.

One study from a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee team found that teachers in higher-achieving first-grade classrooms emphasized basic skills and processes through modeling, direct questioning, and practice. They preferred highly structured, goal-directed classrooms with established routines. Classroom management of teachers in higher-achieving classrooms was firm and decisive, "so that students are engaged in intended academic pursuits."

Teachers in lower-achieving classrooms regarded the acquisition of basic skills and fundamental concepts as secondary to the enjoyment of learning. "The teaching methods they preferred were hands-on activities, cooperative group work, problem-solving tasks, and in general, child-centered experiential learning in which the teacher serves as a facilitator," the researchers noted-all of which sounds nice in theory. Teachers in lower-achieving classrooms generally managed students in a "permissive and inconsistent" manner.

Vanderbilt University researchers studied the success of 227 schools operated by the Pentagon to serve 112,000 military kids who live on bases in the United States and abroad. The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed high achievement levels among students at those schools, particularly among minority students. Success factors, as in the University of Wisconsin study, included high standards and accountability through drill and testing.

In another report, 14 Advantage charter schools showed strong academic improvements among predominantly black and Latino students from low-income homes. Those schools emphasize rigorous academic standards, an orderly learning environment, and traditional, direct instruction in reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics. The quality of classroom instruction, not the size of classes, was the crucial factor; students who had indecisive teachers grew bored and became discipline problems regardless of class size.

A fourth report in School Reform News examined the Nativity School model developed by Jesuit priests in New York 30 years ago, but now used by the Salvation Army and others. The 40 Nativity schools around the country charge small monthly fees-$25 to $100-and stay alive through foundation grants, individual donations, and the work of religious orders or churches. But what's key for the kids is a focus on the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some schools, recognizing that boys and girls tend to learn in different ways, are single-sex.

Money, by the way, can't buy either love or educational effectiveness. Reducing class size does not necessarily make for an improvement in teaching; when it means hiring mediocre teachers, overall school quality declines. A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation notes that billions of dollars in private donations have been directed toward education reform in the United States, but have produced little in the way of lasting results. Some dollars are necessary, of course, to pay teachers and fix holes in roofs, but those who merely throw money at educational problems have holes in their heads.

The key to elementary-school success, it seems, is the same as the key to winning NCAA tournament games: Make sure all students have a basic core knowledge, and give children the satisfaction of knowing that they are becoming disciplined winners.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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