Re-balancing Adult Basic Education

Is education an art, a science, or should it be a balance of both? If best when balanced, four recent trends have tipped U.S. education, including adult basic education, far over to the science side.  The four trends are:

1.   The reign of accountability.  Education policy makers and many other Americans now assume that a lack of learner progress they see in adult, Pre-K through 12th grade, and more recently even higher education, is primarily caused by poorly prepared, incompetent teachers. Their main point is that teachers need to be held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests. To assure better test performance, everything: curriculum, instruction, professional development and especially what teachers do in the classroom needs to align to standards upon which the tests are assumed to be based. The logic is that if the student performance on these tests is low, then it is the lack of alignment and especially poor teacher performance that needs to be changed.

2.   Lack of investment in high-quality professional development High quality, sustained professional development over time, professional development that not only teaches “evidence-based”[i] best practices, helps teachers to find, judge and use the results of others’ research, but also helps them become classroom researchers themselves has declined or disappeared. Like doctors, teachers should be expected to use the best evidence available in making decisions about helping students learn; like doctors, some of that evidence can come from dialogue and observation of patients (in this context, learners). 

3.   Advocacy of teaching based on empirical research instead of professional wisdom As I interpret the writings of many of those who advocate “evidence-based” practices, the sub-text is “if only teachers knew about the (abundant, easily found, gold standard) research evidence and used it, their practices would improve, and learners would achieve greater progress.” Although research has much to offer in some adult basic education content areas and approaches (reading, English language learning and learning disabilities come to mind) a single-minded, narrow emphasis on (often only “gold standard” experimental design) research urges teachers to focus on using findings from professional research done outside their classroom instead of closely observed evidence of their students in their classrooms. 

I am especially concerned that through a number of national and state policies, particularly those resulting from standardized high-stakes testing, our society has changed the role of teacher from an educator, someone who uses good judgment to help students learn (to meet their goals, to learn what is important and useful to know), to an implementer of “proven” practices that will help their students perform better on standardized tests. We have moved very far from the idea that teaching is an art or craft that involves good classroom problem solving and decision making based on close observation of individuals and how they learn.

4.   Lack of good adult education professional research. It is painful when I hear or read policy makers imply that “the answer” to improving classroom quality is getting teachers to use professional educational research, to base their practices solely on research, as if we had a large, solid body of valid, reliable, gold or silver standard adult education research for teachers to use. I believe that the U.S. Department of Education had to eventually abandon the adult education category in its What Works Clearinghouse [ ] because there wasn’t enough research that met its standards to include in this category.

When there is no good research upon which to base a treatment decision, what does a good doctor do? S/he looks for the best evidence that _is_ available. S/he may turn to professional colleagues for their opinions (clinical expertise or professional wisdom) and may — sometimes with information or perspectives provided by the patient — mull over, investigate, collect more information, formulate and test different hypotheses, in short conduct her own research. (I read an enlightening book a few years ago by Dr. Jerome Groopman, Harvard professor of medicine, AIDS and cancer researcher, and New Yorker staff writer, called How Doctors Think. In it he challenges doctors to think differently, especially to listen carefully to their patients’ views of what is wrong with them, that in some cases a logical deductive model based only on empirical evidence can miss important life and death information. Groopman’s approach, documented by case studies, has some relevance for teachers, too!)

We need to restore balance to education in the U.S., to trust teachers, to help them improve how they know what is working for particular students in their classrooms (formative assessment and teacher research/action research), and to include them in setting an agenda for research so that there are good answers to the persistent and difficult questions that they — as professional educators — see in their classrooms. We need to put “evidence-based” in its proper perspective: it is always useful to consider evidence from research, but other kinds of evidence, for example from a thoughtful teacher’s own practice, should also be considered. I would like to see the art of teaching get some attention…and respect.

[i]  The most common definition of Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) in medicine is that of EBP pioneer, David Sackett, according to whom EBP is “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of the individual patient. It means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.”  Sackett, D. Evidence-based Medicine – What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ 1996; 312:71-72.

In Education the most widely-used definition is that of Grover Whitehurst, “The integration of professional wisdom with the best available empirical evidence in making decisions about how to deliver instruction.” Whitehurst, G.J. (2002, October). Evidence-based education. Presentation at the Student Achievement and School Accountability Conference.


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