Common Sense Reform, Evidence, and Faith Based Education

10.19.10 – J.R. Wilson – The reform agenda promoted and supported by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan includes STEM schools, longer school days, longer school years, national standards, national assessments, charter schools, merit pay and evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, and school restructuring.

What evidence supporting these measures have they provided?  What are they basing their decisions on?  A search did not uncover any evidence or reference to empirical research findings but found some interesting statements supporting their reform measures.

The commitment the President made to “restoring integrity to science policy, and making decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology” could and should be extended to education since part of his science policy includes improving achievement in math and science.  Ever wonder what evidence the President and his Secretary of Education provide for decisions made regarding major reform measures?

Research has been conducted on some of the reform measures.  If one really scrutinizes the findings, the evidence does not always support the reform practice.  Often, anecdotal evidence and ideological reports are accepted in lieu of empirical evidence.  Let’s see what kind of supporting evidence and rationale are being used to promote the slate of currently vogue reform measures.

The President has indicated the Race to the Top requirements are “based on the very best evidence about what works”.  The evidence seems to lie in the consensus Arne Duncan and educational experts arrived at about what will produce results.  Consensus apparently is now a form of evidence-based policymaking where evidence is optional.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It’s of no consequence whether or not empirical evidence supports a reform as long as we all agree that it ought to work.  That’s a good enough reason to subject students across the country to the reform impact.  States are being told, asked, bribed, and possibly coerced with NCLB, RTTT, and A Blueprint for Reform to adopt many of the Administration’s reform measures, “few of which are truly ‘evidence-based’”. 

When Arne Duncan was asked what evidence supports the common sense reforms, as he refers to them, he answered, “I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work.”  This unspecified scientific evidence is justification for drastic unproven reform measures.  Basically, we know what is happening now isn’t working so let’s institute this or that reform, never mind that no evidence supports the reform and in some cases evidence shows the promoted reform is not effective.  The current Administration has become the status quo.

Certainly, we can easily reach consensus that the status quo doesn’t work, therefore, common sense justifies the use of any reform measure we believe will improve schools.  Are our nation’s leaders setting a decision making example for educational leaders and administrators at the local and state level with their decision strategies or are they mirroring strategies already in use across the country? Have our leaders lost their way?  Have we been led astray? Are our decision makers exercising the highly coveted critical thinking and deep understanding we so want to develop in our students?  Is the education problem in this country really more of a political problem?

Consider the examples of a few reform measures.  A failing school will certainly fail no more if it is closed as one of the restructuring options.  What about the students?  Does losing their community neighborhood school ensure success in a new setting?  Where is the empirical research showing students from a closed failed school make greater academic gains than students from a failed school with similar demographics that remains open? While common sense may say it is reasonable to use student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, research findings indicate this practice is unstable and unreliable.  Where’s the research that shows using merit pay as an incentive results in improved student achievement scores?

Current political practices are such that available evidence is often ignored, misused, misinterpreted, or skewed to favor the prevailing favored faith based (and often vendor-based) common sense reform measures.  Before buying into the boilerplate blather about a reform’s expected efficacy, you are encouraged to do your own review of the research.  Dig deeper for evidence to see if more than common sense and scientific evidence about the status quo supports the latest reform fads. 

Where will the implementation of the reform measures supported by common sense, consensus, and faith-based education lead us?  Robert Pondiscio says it well in Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea:   “Fast-forward. It is 2016. After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way. A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras. But other energetic, well-meaning reformers see it another way. Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers. Aggressive, immediate action is needed.”

No doubt, we will once again have the opportunity to ignore and/or misinterpret the evidence, identify new reform measures to inflict on the education system, and start a new cycle once teachers have been blamed and thoroughly punished.

J.R. Wilson is an education advocate with 25+ years experience in public education as an elementary teacher, curriculum consultant, staff development coordinator, and principal.


  1. Laurie Rogers

    Excellent article. Well done. I couldn't agree more.

    In July 2009, I sent in a FOIA request to the U.S. Department of Education on its role in development of the national standards. More than a year later, I have received nothing on that request. I have followed up several times. Still nothing.

    Watch your back, folks. These people have an agenda to push, despite having no data to support it, despite public resistance to it, and despite the myriad unanswered questions. That's because this agenda has nothing to do with data, nothing to do with the children, nothing to do with the teachers (except where they will be blamed), and nothing to do with the parents and other taxpayers (except where they will be forced to foot the bill).

    Please urge your state decision-makers and legislators to reject this untested, untried, and inappropriate federal agenda.

    And in November, please don't forget to vote.

    Laurie Rogers

  2. Barry Garelick

    This article hits the nail on the head. Arne Duncan's statement as quoted in the article ( "I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work." ) is something that is heard at many school board meetings at which the board (which has made up its mind) makes a similar statement as an introduction and justification for adoption of some program that causes many parents to gag in their sleep. (Usually a math program). These parents show up at the meeting to be given lip service and ultimately ignored. The school boards and now Arne Duncan, has heard it all before. They are convinced the methods of the past have not worked, and the only reason the parents are protesting is because they like what's familiar to them, not something new that they haven't seen before. Never mind that there is evidence that traditional methods of math and science teaching in the U.S. did produce measurable improvements in scores on tests such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Also never mind that the traditional methods decried by reformers are being used to great effect in Asian countries. And never mind that such techniques are being used by the successful schools in the US–and sometimes clandestinely by teachers who might get in trouble if they are found to break from the fidelity of implementation of these products of dubious educational theory.

    I hope that people in the Administration read this article. If they do, here’s a news flash to the decision makers: parents are not as stupid as you think we are. If what you are telling the American public is that there’s a safe way to jump out of an airplane without dying, then what we are telling you is our “common sense” tells us otherwise. Our experience in seeing the effects of your failed educational policies on our children is our evidence.

    Please take a good hard and objective look at what passes as a course of study in today’s schools of education and you will see ill-constructed and ideologically driven courses that embrace every failed educational trend and fad that is currently in vogue. After you’ve done this, ask yourself this question: are the courses and expectations in these schools of education the same as those in other departments, such as math, physics, literature, and the social sciences? Are masters degrees really granted based on “portfolios” that are little more than scrapbooks of the courses students have taken, bound together with a theme such as “Transforming from Clark Kent into Superman: My Personal Journey”?

  3. Tasha

    Wilson, I appreciate your focus on empirical research, both in calling for more evidenced based education and throughout the body of your article. But, you imply that since no evidence has been produced to promote longer school days, national standards etc, that it does not exist. In actuality, there is an abundance of research that supports several different opinions on the matter, which leads me to wonder how useful research is if you can construe facts and data to tell whatever story you want. I certainly support the use of empirical research to support decisions, but I would also like to point out that empirical "evidence" does not guarantee real life results.

  4. J.R. Wilson

    Tasha, you make some good points for which I don’t necessarily disagree. I do encourage people to dig deeper to satisfy themselves rather than blindly accepting what is thrust at them. Much of what passes for research in education does not match up to the approach research takes in other fields. As you indicate, research often supports several different opinions. While I would prefer findings of fact with the facts in support of or not in support of something, that often does not happen in education. I would encourage people to take a closer look at the quality of the research. Has it been peer reviewed? What research methods and designs have been used? Is the research valid? Is it reliable? Do the findings reflect a correlation or a cause and effect? Are you comfortable with the research you see that supports the reform measures? Research on some reform measures does not support use while it may for other measures. Decisions are often made without regard for evidence—and are often made for other reasons. I have seen a program put in place that took an hour a week of instructional time. The program was put in place, as stated by the principal, because it was good public relations, not because it was effective (research showed similar programs to not make a difference) or would make a difference for students. As for longer school days and longer school years, I can’t favor this until our schools use the time they currently have more effectively to provide instruction. Until they do, we need that time at home to teach our child the things the schools haven’t taught or have done a substandard job with—mainly grammar, spelling, and math.

  5. mathgrump

    An excellent critique of what is a huge problem in modern American public education these days. Specifically, all an ed policy-maker or administrator or curriculum designer has to do is to say "research shows" [fill in the blank]and it's like it's the end of the discussion—nobody questions the conclusion of that statement. I have seen this over and over and over way too many times in my long career as a school teacher in the public schools. But "research shows" has been responsible for some of the most unimaginable and unworkable junk ever to hit our schools and classrooms. I long have wished that there was some central, unbiased clearinghouse which looks at educational research and evaluates it as either excellent, good, fair or poor and critiques it with a fine-tooth comb. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) would be a very logical fit for this task—I don't know if AERA does anything like this. J.R. Wilson has done an admirable job in starting this discussion on this forum. The discussion needs to be continued.

  6. Sam Matlack

    I suggest there are at least two fundamental issues involved:

    (a) What is the ultimate goal of public education according to the Obama administration, and do we agree with that?

    (b) Are the proposed/mandated means to achieve that goal appropriate?

    You argue correctly in your article that we have been given little, if any, evidence that we should answer (b) with 'yes.' But I wonder if the more fundamental question is (a), since the means we use of course depend on the goals they seek to achieve. And that is largely a "faith-based", philosophical matter: What is the purpose of public school? What should be the government's involvement in it? etc.

    Furthermore, I wonder if some goals (e.g. social responsibility, high level critical thinking etc.) are maybe not easily, if at all, measurable in a way that we might consider as "evidence-based."

    Thanks for your article! My own article should be linked to my name, otherwise found at

  7. Bob Oliphant

    Prior to 1960 and the corruption of public discourse ("a new frontier," etc.), American schools and colleges taught Critical Thinking, which stressed the distinction between factually verifiable statements and non verifable ones (or falsifiable, to cite Wittgenstein, etc.).
    Though I sympathize with the participants in this discussion, I cringe at their reluctance to climb down from the ladders of abstraction that Orwell, Hayakawa, and Karl Popper tried to tip over…

  8. Robert V. Rose, MD

    12/05/2010 00:27:00
    Maria Montessori
    5.12.10 – Bob Rose, MD – I started a yahoogroups listserv and recruiting a number of "whole language" teachers to help test Maria Montessori's 1912 postulate that making young children "expert" at writing the alphabet would make them "spontaneous" readers


    During the school year of 2002-2003 I started a yahoogroups listserv and recruiting a number of "whole language" teachers to help test Maria Montessori's 1912 postulate that making young children "expert" at writing the alphabet would make them "spontaneous" readers.

    To my delight, there turned out to be a very strong correlation between how many letters of the alphabet first-graders could write in a timed, 20-second period of time and how good their reading skills were. To my delight, there was a very strong correlation. However, the Whole Language Teachers did not believe in "setting specific achievement goals", and I was asked to unsubscribe from the list.

    During the following school year (2003-2004) I created my own yahoogroups listserv and recruited another group of five kindergarten teachers willing to submit correlation data between alphabet-letter writing fluency and reading skills. Children were identified by ID numbers, rather than by names, to keep the study ethical.

    There had been 94 students in the Whole Language "control" group, and I got a total of 106 student correlations from the five "experimental" kindergarten teachers, all of whom had also gotten very strong correlations between writing fluency and reading skill.

    I immediately emailed the editorial offices of over a dozen well-known education journals, asking if they would be interested in me submitting a write-up of our study for possible publication. I got only two responses: one said, "That couldn't possibly be true", but the editor of the Harvard Educational Review enthusiastically invited my submission. I wrote up our study and had it sent in three days later. (In March, 2004). A few months later I received a standard letter of rejection from them.

    Since then I have emailed copies of "my manuscript" to HUNDREDS of educational psychologists, journalists, education professors, politicians and school superintendents. Though I received a few informal polite replies, no one seemed to take my idea seriously.

    During the second half of the 2008-2009 school year I recruited a number of different kindergarten and first-grade teachers to my listserv. All who participated again saw positive correlations, but it was decided to wait until this present (2009-2010) school year to repeat the study and see if we could get enough data to publish a meaningful meta-analysis onto the internet.

    So far (5/5/10) we have data from three first-grade teachers at a Catholic private school in an upper middle-class Midwestern city. The data from these three teachers involve a total of 60 first-graders. Not only is there a correlation between alphabet-writing fluency and literacy, BUT EVERY ONE OF THESE CHILDREN IS NOW ABLE TO READ. (We got baseline data last year from a first-grade in one of the most affluent and academically successful elementary schools in the state of Pennsylvania. NOT ALL of their first graders were readers, though there was indeed a correlation between writing fluency and reading skill).

    At this Catholic school teacher # 1 wrote she had the children practice writing the alphabet three days a week. (We had recommended five minutes each school day). Her class's writing fluency rates ranged between 63 and 123 letters-per-minute (LPM), and her median student wrote at a rate of 72 LPM. Teacher # 2's median rate was 75 LPM, and the median rate for teacher # 3 was 84 LPM.

    A kindergarten teacher in our study wishes to be identified as "Mary Jane from rural South Carolina". She tells us that 93% of the children in her school receive subsidized lunches, and as of early May, 2010, only two of the children in her kindergarten are not yet readers. The principal of a highly successful elementary school in Atlanta had once told me on the telephone that children should learn to read in kindergarten, not in the first-grade.

    Some years ago the retired archivist of the Calvert School (a private elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland), sent me a copy of a privately published booklet published in 1996, the centennial of the founding of the school. The original headmaster, G. Vernon Hillyer, wrote that, "If you teach children to write, you needn't bother teaching them to read". In his first-grade (the school had no kindergarten), children simply learned to write the sentence, "I see a tree". Thereafter they learned to write, "The tree is green". After about three months, all the children were literate, and then began to study a formal curriculum and to write meaningful essays. Twenty years later, he wrote that the school had never failed to teach a normal child to read and write.

    In traditional Russia, children were taught literacy at home, before they began school. In Russian, as in English, various letters are pronounced differently in normal colloquial speech than they are written. As a matter of fact, there is not word for "to spell" in Russian. Instead, if one wishes to ask how a word is written, one just asks, "How is that written by syllables". For example, the word "govorit" (he speaks) is colloquially pronounced "guvareet". When asked how it is written, one answers: "Goh-Voh-REET".

    In other words, one basically doesn't learn to read in Russian, one learns simply to write. And anyone can read anything anyone can successfully write! (I studied Russian for three years in college, and this way of learning to write in Russia is confirmed by several people educated in Russia whom I have known in the past.

    We appreciate this May 1st, 20101data from Ardis, which we'll consider "end-of-the-year" data, even though a nice lady at the Michigan Board of Education just told me on the telephone that the children in Macomb Count, Michigan, adjacent to Detroit, will actually probably be attending school into sometime in June.

    In the past Ardis, a kindergarten teacher, has told us her school has a high number of the children of immigrants in her class. I'm waiting to hear by direct email from Ardis whether she wants any particular restrictions placed on her identify and location, and/or can she give us any more graphics about her class.

    Ardis included two interesting remarks in her report. One is "I have to admit I haven't kept up with the fluency training during this second semester as much as I did last year." The other important comment is "Every single person [i.e., kindergartner} is a reader - there are no struggling or non-readers this year".

    At any rate, Ardis' data of May first indicate there were 26 kids in her kindergarten. One has moved away, and of the remaining:

    Four students wrote the alphabet more rapidly than 40 LPM. There reading levels were, respectively, high, average, high and high.

    Eight students wrote at between 30 and 39 LPM. In descending LPM order, their reading levels were high, high, high, high, very high (3rd grade level), low average, low average and average.

    Eleven students scored between 21 and 27 LPM. Again, in decreasing order of LPM, their reading levels were: medium, high, high, low average, low average, medium, average, low average, high, very very high [3rd grade level; autistic], (this student's LPM was 21) and average.

    Two students scored only 18 LPM. Their reading levels were high and low average.

    Nancy, an Ed.D kindergarten teacher, also from Macomb county (part of metropolitan Detroit), just provided us with the following data:

    Two of our 26 students scored better than 40 LPM and both rated as "above grade level" in reading skill.

    Two students scored 39 LPM, and that are also "above grade level".

    Five students scored between 30 and 36 LPM. In decreasing order of LPM rates, they were rated

    "above grade level", "below grade level", "above grade level", "above grade level" and "at grade level" respectively.

    Eight students wrote at between 21 and 27 LPM. Each of these eight were rated as "at grade level", in my opinion of their reading ability.

    Five students wrote at 15 LPM. Of these, one was "at grade level" and the other four were "below grade level".

    In the fall of 2009 the average LPM rate in my class was 7 LPM. At present it is 28 LPM.

    Historically, many authorities on the subject of literacy instruction have stressed the importance of adequate practice in printing alphabet letters. The first-century Roman writer and rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca A.D. 35-98?) wrote that with regard to becoming literate, “Too slow a hand impedes the mind".

    In 1912, Maria Montessori wrote, in effect, that teaching young children to print letters is easy, that it is easy to teach children to read after they have practiced printing alphabet letters, but that it is difficult to teach children to read if they have not practiced writing them.

    Marilyn Jager Adams noted that prior to the onset of the twentieth century the “spelling drill” was the principal means of inducing literacy for several millennia.

    I believe that the cumulative suggestion of our repeated on-line meta-analyses supports the idea that making children fluent at writing the alphabet during the first two years of school will be an important advance in the teaching of literacy throughout the world. We hope this summary will be relayed to K-1 teachers everywhere via the internet.

    I think the importance of our findings is not in the strength of this on-line research. To be scientifically valid, studies must not only be reproducible, but reproducible by different experimenters.

    The most outstanding result of our research is having learned that no one, in spite of vast sums being spent on "literacy research", has ever done and published a study to see if Maria Montessori's postulate holds true for Anglophone children, or whether it does not!

    Bob Rose, MD (retired)

    Jasper, Georgia


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    Comments (1 posted):
    Patrick Groff on 14/05/2010 07:52:10

    Dear Dr. Rose:

    I was pleased to see your revelation of the fact that most young children in the U.S. are denied an effective manner in which to develop their reading abilities. This practice is so notorious that I call it a form of academic child abuse.

    Your comments also lead me to the conclusion that the public needs to be informed that professors of reading education are the major cause of the failure of American children to read commpetently. I hope in the future that you will add that truism to your other pertinent remarks.

    Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University

  9. Common Sense Reform, Evidence, and Faith Based Education |

    [...] published October 19, 2010, on Republished on the Betrayed blog with permission from author J.R. Wilson.)The reform agenda [...]

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