June 22, 2022

John Thompson: How To Make Education Better, Really

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John Thompson takes a look at a book by Lawrence Baines that lays out some of the solutions that reformers have ignored. 

What’s A Parent To Do?: How to Give Your Child the Best Education, by Lawrence Baines, gives clear and excellent advice to parents about navigating complex issues for both early education and public schools. Baines can be blunt about warning families about dilemmas created by the test-driven, competition-driven, top-down reform of the last few decades. Whether or not it was his explicit goal when explaining these issues and research to families, his letter to parents approach also allows for bridging differences while being candid about the edu-political battles that were made so much worse by corporate school reform.

Baines is the director of teacher education at Berry College, a former K-12 teacher and former Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Oklahoma. What’s A Parent To Do? starts with the clear statement that the quest for the best education is “not about optimizing test scores.” It follows up with the observation that should have never been controversial – schools need more money.

Foreshadowing his advice on holistic, early education and the need for loving adult mentors, Baines draws on research from the turn of 20th century. Although the wording of such research is problematical in today’s debates, its basic finding should now be obvious: family and adult guidance matter, and their effects are greater than what we might imagine.

A study of “mentally retarded” children and “above average” children at an orphanage found that the so-called mentally retarded children who were adopted had an average increase of 28 points in their I.Q.s. The children identified as “more intelligent,” but who weren’t adopted, lost 26 points in I.Q. Although discussions about the role of families can be touchy, the difference of 54 points is a powerful argument for investing in families.

Similarly, more recent research estimated that children of modern “professionals” hear 6 positive comments compared to 1 negative comment per hour. Children in so-called “welfare homes” receive 1 positive comment and 2 negative comments per hour. That contributed to gap in IQ of 117 for children in homes of professionals compared to around 79 from poor families.

Baines also notes that the strongest link to student achievement was books at home.

Baines then cites research explaining that “play is by its very nature educational. And it should be pleasurable. When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning.” Moreover, it has been estimated that “outdoor playtime has been cut in half the last 20 years.” Also, the push for increasing test scores has disproportionately reduced recess and opportunities for poor students to play at schools.

Baines also documents the need to limit screen time and offers some steps towards solutions. He describes “four pernicious effects” of excessive and premature online activities. Digital screens damage children’s cognitive functioning, health and fitness, attention spans, and sleep. He notes a recent survey which found that “90% of parents encourage their kids to watch online videos.”  Moreover, it has been estimated that for every hour teens spend reading, they spend 26 watching videos on digital devices.

So, how do we address the harm to children who sit idly for 1,000 hours per year at school?

Baines notes that the Arts can change children’s biological responses, providing soothing and healing, reducing depression, regulating executive functions, and promoting empathy. But he strongly advises that full benefits of artistic self-expression also require support by adults. And he adds that music improves children’s memory, language developments, health and immune systems, and it is inexpensive.

Finally, when transitioning from family matters to schools, Baines makes a powerful pitch for diversity. Diversity not only benefits public education but it also benefits the economy. And he closes with the wisdom of Mark Twain who said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

Baines doesn’t pull any punches with his advice to “avoid charter schools.” He first cites EPIC charter schools that diverted $10 million to its owners. When parents make decisions for their own children, they also need to consider the multiple ways that output-driven charters undermine the advice he gave in the first part of What’s A Parent To Do? Obviously, a for-profit online school is not likely to tackle the harms of too much screen time. But competition-driven charter schools are also less likely to prioritize play, arts, music, and diversity.

While not playing the blame game, Baines understands that parents want the best teachers possible. He adds that parents can learn the truth about a school by hiring a cameraman to walk around and film everything in the school.

Or, seriously, parents can talk with teachers and build trusting relationships, and thus learn the truths that test scores can’t provide. Baines also makes the case that tests can be used for diagnostic purposes, but a focus on test scores undermines the trust that is essential for teaching and learning. He cites evidence that half of students between 5th and 12th grade find school boring most of the time. That “vapid school culture” has been made worse by standardized tests.

What’s A Parent To Do? cites evidence that teachers may make between 1 and 4 decisions per minute. That is a legacy of demanding too much of schools and it contributes to their lack of time for nurturing the enthusiasm which can “help move a child’s level of excitement from zilch to ‘maybe I’m interested.’” This is crucial because enthusiasm can be the “‘most powerful unique predictor of students’ intrinsic motivation and vitality’”

In closing, Baines argues that team sports should only be for children 10 years and older. Moreover, football is about 42 times more likely to produce concussions than track. But regular attendance by parents at school events is essential. He also notes ways that Covid showed costs of not properly investing in schools. For instance, the undermining of library/media centers limited some of the best options for maintaining mental health and learning when schools were forced to close.

And that brings us back to why it’s great that Baines’ advice respects and speaks to the hard choices that parents must make. The fundamental rationale of corporate school reform (at least with reformers who mistakenly but sincerely sought school improvement shortcuts, as opposed to those seeking to cripple public education) was the belief that holistic, social science-based solutions were too slow. Venture philanthropists said our most underserved students did not have time for interconnected solutions that stressed early learning, arts and music, play, and diversity.

Reformers should have known better, but they refused to listen to the advice of education experts like Lawrence Baines as to the harm that would result from their output-driven, choice-driven hunches, and how it would most damage underfunded schools serving the poorest children of color, especially those who come from segregated schools lacking social capital and who had survived multiple traumas. What’s A Parent To Do? cuts through the hype and reveals how educational policies and parental decisions really play out in the lives of children.

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