N. Andover’s poor education choices shouldn’t be repeated in other communities



By: Ralph Wilbur – December, 2007

In the late 1960’s, North Andover was one of the first communities to wholeheartedly adopt the then current fad for “open classroom” teaching. A new high school was constructed without internal partitioning walls and the result was noise, constant distractions and educational bedlam.

Generations of North Andover students and teachers suffered under this handicap. Finally and rightfully, the building was torn down. Its demise was long before its time, had it been more functionally designed.

Approximately ten years ago, North Andover purchased a “constructivist” math program called TERC. Its guiding philosophy was that students should discover basic arithmetic operations on their own. It not only didn’t teach the traditional methods of arithmetic, it actively discouraged their use by students – despite the fact that these methods are demonstrably the most efficient techniques for manual computation.

This math program was finally acknowledged to be a disaster in 2003 but not replaced until 2005. The use of TERC during this period deprived thousands of students of a solid math curriculum.

North Andover seems to have a flair for adopting the latest untried and untested educational innovations. Now, their students are confronted again with the same kind of educational tinkering – this time in science.

The North Andover School Department has committed to spending close to three-quarters of a million dollars over the next five years on a new-fangled “inquiry-based” science program for elementary grades K-5. Inquiry-based instruction, using kits instead of textbooks, is the latest in pedagogical gimmickry promoted by the major education publishers and our colleges of education.

In stark contrast, St. Michael’s Catholic School, also in North Andover, recently purchased a conventional MacMillan-McGraw 2008 Science Series program for grades K-5. It included hands-on materials in each grade, leveled readers in grades K-1, and textbooks in grades 2-5. The cost per student was $128, compared to $386 per student for the inquiry-based program in the North Andover public schools. There was no economy of scale in the North Andover purchase, serving about 1,800 students, compared to 312 students at St. Michael’s. In addition to an initial teachers’ workshop training session, MacMillan-McGraw agreed to work with St. Michael’s teaching staff throughout the year, as the need arises.

The North Andover inquiry-based strategy was chosen by a select committee of teachers and staff over a more traditional textbook-oriented program offered by Houghton Mifflin.

The School Committee unfortunately went along with this recommendation, with only one of the five board members making an effort to examine the two programs’ materials.

Dr. Charles Ormsby, the one member who did make a hands-on comparison, strongly endorsed the Houg-hton Mifflin textbook-based program over the FOSS (Full Option Science System) inquiry-based program, saying that it is the more rigorous of the two and, by providing a textbook, it allows parents to follow the progress of their children’s interest and development in science.

For example, Dr. Ormsby drew a comparison between how the two programs explained the operation of an electric motor. The FOSS booklet noted that rotating magnets mounted on the motor’s axle are repelled by magnets fixed to the base of the motor, but FOSS never explained why this same force would not stop the rotation after the motor’s axle turned by half a full rotation. Key to the basic functioning of an electric motor is that the polarity of the rotating magnets are reversed every half rotation to keep the rotation going.

The Houghton Mifflin text explained that this is necessary (in fact, it is the function of the motor’s commutator and brushes) and therefore provided a full explanation of how a motor functions. The FOSS booklets routinely gloss over important facts or key physical mechanisms such as this, while the Houghton Mifflin text-books routinely provide more complete explanations; albeit ones that are tailored to the elementary school level.

Publishing school textbooks and educational materials is big business. Those with Ph.D. degrees from our colleges of education periodically come up with plans to “revolutionize” teaching and learning. As paid consultants, they join with the publishers, assisting them in developing something “new” and “innovative” to increase profits and market share for the publishers and add to the list of published works for the educators.

As with most consumer product industries, styles are changed and new features are added as a matter of course, needed or not. In the educational publishing industry, we are not just talking millions, but billions of dollars.

Past pedagogical failures have been, for the most part, strongly endorsed at their inception by major education professional associations and college of education gurus. Inquiry-based instruction is no exception. Like the now defunct “open classroom” theory, the “whole word” method of learning to read, and “new math” (now labeled “fuzzy math”) – all were total failures, to the detriment of millions of American students, and all were once warmly endorsed at the outset by the education professors in their ivory towers. [Note: I am not referring to professors who are actually experts in some subject area and teach that subject area. Instead, I’m referring specifically to professors in our “education colleges” that are experts at nothing more than inventing new teaching methods.]

Alan Cromer, Professor of Physics – a real professor! – at Northeastern University, in his paper “Science Standards: An Update,” described the trend to inquiry-based instruction as “a redefinition of science that borders on antiscience.”

He remarked that the trend “is about science for the least engaged students, not the most engaged.”

A document published by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled National Science Education Standards (NSES), has probably had the most direct influence and has taken a bold, if not insistent, stand for mass adoption of the inquiry-based approach.

In 1998 however, the California Academic Standards Commission released a draft report of its own three-day standards writing conference. According to Professor Cromer, “The California Draft breaks with NSES in a number of important ways. First, the Draft doesn’t confuse methods and goals. It doesn’t say how science is to be taught, but only what is to be learned. Inquiry is not touted as the ‘the central strategy for teaching science.’ Second, it doesn’t confound the teaching of science with the burden of teaching sociology, history, philosophy, and technology as well… Third, the Physical Science part of the Draft is organized into teachable units, with detailed descriptions of the expectations of each unit. This is very helpful for designing curricula and allocating time.” He reports that defenders of NSES “are actively campaigning against the [California] Draft precisely because student-initiated inquiry is not central to it.”

Cromer concludes that the NSES proposal “is a radical postmodern document that replaces focused investigation with student-initiated inquiry in order to define a finger-painting version of science that is accessible to all. This movement has been met head-on by the movement to make schools accountable through statewide testing. The logic of testing requires standards that are far more specific than NSES supporters find acceptable. [They complain] that the California ‘draft standards have too much detailed content and too much technical jargon at all grade spans.’ Yet details and specific vocabulary are absolutely necessary if the standards are to be the basis for statewide testing.”

The new and fashionable inquiry-based method is the latest buzz. By the time these programs hit the classrooms, the media and the educational blogs have been saturated with publicity and rave re-views. Those with an interest in serious evaluation hardly have a chance to critically assess a new program’s effectiveness before wholesale introduction into classrooms across the nation begins.

All the while, publishers pour millions of dollars into marketing materials, pamphlets, videos, and sales pitches to school districts. The promotion video on the inquiry-based program shown in North Andover was strictly Hollywood. The child actors knew their lines and followed the script as they demonstrated how the program is supposed to work (in theory). But there can be a serious disconnect between theory and practice. Parents and school administrators should not be misled or fooled by hypothetical, make-believe scenarios on video used to promote education programs or products for their children.

What is Inquiry-Based Science, and how may it impact student’s test scores? See Part 2 in next month’s Valley Patriot.

Ralph Wilbur is the vice-president of The Valley Patriot, a member of the North Andover Taxpayers Association and the owner of Graphic Litho on Glen Street in Lawrence. You can email your comments to sales@graphic litho.com