Making Our Schools Better Is Not Easy

This blog is now on its third year. It has been viewed more than a million times by more than three hundred thousand visitors. Most are from the Philippines. One thing that should be obvious by now is that improving basic education is really no easy task. In fact, even under circumstances that seem highly favorable, good results may still not be forthcoming. Take, for example, a study made by Roland Fryer

Additional hours in school, the best teachers and administrators, private tutoring, data-informed instruction, and an environment that supports success - and yet, all of these combined results only in a modest increase in math scores, 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations per year. And there is almost no effect on reading comprehension. Seriously, what else did Fryer miss?

An answer to this mystery is provided by Willingham on his blog:

...Thus, it may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.

This explanation is also relevant to the math/reading difference. In math, if you put a little extra time in, it’s at least obvious where that time should go. If kids are behind in mathematics, it’s not difficult to know what they need to work on. Once kids reach upper elementary school, reading comprehension is driven primarily by background knowledge; knowing a bit about the topic of the text you’re reading confers a big advantage to comprehension. Kids from impoverished homes suffer primarily from a knowledge deficit (Hirsch, 2007).

So a bit of extra time, while better than nothing, is just a start at an attempt to build the knowledge needed for these students to make significant strides in reading comprehension. And in this particular intervention, no attempt was made to assess what knowledge was needed and to build it systematically.

This problem is not unique in Fryer’s intervention. As he notes, it’s always tougher to move the needle on reading than on math. That’s because experiences outside of the classroom make such an enormous contribution to reading ability....
The difference between the effects on math and reading is indeed a clue. Education is not only about acquiring skills for these skills are not built from a vacuum, but from a body of knowledge that a student is able to build.

That is why education reforms that promise too much are often truly empty. There is no doubt that in the Philippines, all five interventions described above are not likely to be found in its public schools. The above mainly describes the implementation required to be effective. Implementation, however, is only one part of the picture. What to deliver is, of course, defined by the curriculum. The content of a curriculum is likewise important. Sadly, DepEd K+12, the new curriculum for basic education in the Philippines, with its heavy emphasis on inquiry and spiral progression, still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality of content. Thus, Philippine schools suffer both in curriculum and delivery. Making schools better is not easy....


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