With March Madness -- the NCAA basketball tournament -- beginning, 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 the ones who discipline their young anarchists.
Watch this month as teams advance to the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four. They're fundamentally solid in blocking out, setting picks, playing tough defense and doing the other things that make up the breakfasts of champions. The players acknowledge that practices weren't much fun, but it's fun to win.
With all the talk of educational reform this past year, we still haven't applied March Madness lessons to today's crazy quilt of theories about how to have better elementary schools, particularly in poor areas. The liberal worldview that elementary schoolchildren 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.
Lots of teachers love the idea of sitting around a table with children and having them discuss great books. It's much more interesting for a teacher than drilling kids on spelling and multiplication tables, and they can point to examples of highly motivated students (often from affluent, two-educated-parent homes) who thrive on such a curriculum.
But the educational research I've been looking at, in publications like the Heartland Institute's School Reform News, suggests a different way of teaching, particularly for kids from poor, single-parent homes who face tough circumstances and may already have had a series of failures in their lives. They need lots of drilling 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, drill 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. They preferred "child-centered experiential learning, in which the teacher serves as a facilitator" and generally managed students in a "permissive and inconsistent" manner, the study noted.
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 drilling 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.
Overall, the research shows that money cannot buy effectiveness. Reducing class size does not necessarily make for an improvement in teacher effectiveness; if it means hiring mediocre teachers, overall school quality will decline. 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.