"Education Research Deserves An F"

So says Newsweek's science editor. I agree.

"There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works," says William Cobern of Western Michigan University. "It's a crazy situation."

Cobern tried to fix that in a study comparing direct instruction with inquiry learning, competing ways to teach science. The smart money has been on the latter, in which students explore a question on their own by, say, growing some seedlings in a closet and others on a windowsill to discover photosynthesis rather than being given the concept by the teacher. Cobern's team randomly assigned 180 eighth graders (randomization is the gold standard for research, as in trials for new drugs) to one or the other form of instruction, they report in a study published in Research in Science & Technological Education in April.

Contrary to received wisdom, "as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as inquiry-based teaching" in how well kids learn science concepts, he told me. Yet national and state standards push inquiry learning.

However, the writer does make one questionable observation.

As pay-for-performance spreads, we will therefore be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats (bad curriculum).

Why does the author write that? Could be she believes it. Could be it's a way to make things topical. Could be it's a way to "win over" readers who may be teachers.

But I'm not sure how often that will happen. Teachers within a single district with merit pay will likely be using the same curriculum. Therefore their merit pay will essentially "control" for curriculum, leaving only their "teaching."

If the merit pay is a statewide effort, and Boston's math teachers start getting a lot more merit pay than, say, Worcester's, then the latter teachers might be motivated to act. To, you know, change the curriculum.

Merit pay has, I think, a chance of actually helping improve the curriculum.