Thoughts on The Good School

Sunday December 18, 2011

I just finished reading The Good School by Peg Tyre. From the introduction, here's what the book sets out to do:

If you are interested in "looking under the hood," this book is for you. It will help bring you up to speed on some of the most crucial issues and controversies that are likely to affect your child's education. It will provide you with a SparkNotes version of the history of education to explain to you why things are the way they are. It will introduce you to the freshest thinking - and some of the most innovative ideas - about how to help our kids do better. But more than that, it will help you judge the value of these ideas by providing you with the most solid research available. In areas where research is not yet clear, you will meet people and hear about research that will be creating headlines - and perhaps school policy - in the years to come.

And it does it with some success. The audience is very clearly parents, and there is a good deal of pandering. Parents are the greatest! etc. And the beginning of the book is overfull of this kind of thing, including a chapter specifically for busy parents who couldn't possibly read a whole book, who just want to find a good preschool and go to sleep. So this chapter is sort of a drag, giving the recommendations without the evidence, and so on.

Chapter two on testing picks up a little bit, and there's a cogent explanation of the limitations and possible unintended consequences of standardized tests. The book might be worthwhile just for this explanation. Two interesting quotes. First, the "law" named after Donald T. Campbell:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitore."

And some words from John Tanner, who runs Test Sense:

He draws a parallel between encouraging or even allowing teachers to teach to the test, and encouraging people to study for the eye test before they go to the DMV. "What would happen," Tanner says, "is that we'd have a lot of people passing the test but not have a clue whether they can actually see well enough to drive."

Chapter three on class size is interesting, because while acknowledging that everybody wants small class size and also that all the research seems to show smaller classes are better, if by small margins, Tyre tries to conclude that class size is not such a big deal in the domains that are usually in the field - and maybe she's right that 22 kids is not worlds better than 24, 34 not so much better than 36, and that teacher quality is more important, but I can't accept her apparent conclusion that smaller classes are not something to pursue. Never mind that nowhere is the fundamental issue of the reality of differentiation addressed: one teacher cannot do different things with different students at the same time. (Tyre does relate what I think may be an awfully common example of bad differentiation, which is simply giving a struggling, slower student less of the same stuff to do. Lowering expectations is better teaching?)

The book really picks up at chapter four, where Tyre has a strong case that there is consensus in the literature about how best to teach reading, and that too often this conclusion is ignored, to the detriment of students. To my amusement, there is a section headed "Teaching reading is rocket science," which echoes a section from a speech (given after the publication of the book) by Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy, "Teaching is rocket science". Everybody wants to talk about rocket science now. And the research-backed right way to teach reading is phonics, or as they say in the UK "systematic synthetic phonics" (because you synthesize or blend sounds together) which I happen to know because I read this section from the 2010 England Department for Education white paper "The importance of teaching", where they describe as one of their goals in the executive summary that they must:

Ensure that there is support available to every school for the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics, as the best method for teaching reading.

So it seems that people are coming around to this, but I remember even in my MAT program what I learned about how people teach reading was that there were a number of competing philosophies, and none of them necessarily had the upper hand. Phonics has the upper hand. It has the only hand. You must teach children to sound out words.

There's a chapter on math too, which I generally agree with. Tyre emphasizes the importance of carefully planned curriculum that helps students progress through conceptual understandings of carefully arranged mathematics. There's praise for Singapore math and, more indirectly, Common Core.

Tyre has support for recess. Great. Also she spends time talking about how some teachers are better than others. It's amazing that this needs to be said, but apparently it really does. The last chapter is the tale (true, she says) of how some parents got involved and helped make their local school better. Tyre supports parent involvement and system transparency, and I can only hope that things work out in general as well as they do in her story.

There are plenty of things to disagree with or be frustrated by in this book, including some little ones that are just annoying or unfortunate. Using "an octagonal" instead of just saying an octagon. Leaving the "l" out of "public". These are the most superficial. I am more concerned when I can't find a relevant endnote for a numeric claim. But the book is at its best when it goes all the way to a conclusion on a topic, provides real evidence for that conclusion, and invites the reader to engage it. Together with the outlines of educational history, I think it is a worthwhile book that can definitely help parents get started with a more informed and powerful involvement in education.

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