Fighting Fads by Informing Consumers: an exclusive interview with J.E. Stone

Published March 1, 2004

Starting with the Milwaukee voucher program some 15 years ago, new school choice programs–whether vouchers, tax credits, or charter schools–have been subjected to an almost constant barrage of criticism from opponents who have demanded the programs be halted if research could not convincingly demonstrate a significant improvement in student achievement.

One result of such criticism has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of research on school choice. Another has been the application of similar standards of scrutiny to public education itself, with the question: Are reforms there producing significant improvements in student achievement?

It was just such a question that J.E. Stone asked 10 years ago, when the new principal at his sons’ school decided to implement year-round schooling, representing it as a way to improve student achievement. Stone, a professor of educational psychology at East Tennessee State University, found most teachers and parents opposed the idea, and when he looked at the research on year-round schooling, he found the model being proposed had no effect on student achievement. When the research findings made no difference to the principal’s advocacy of the year-round plan, Stone realized just how little ability parents and taxpayers have to influence school policy, despite the fact that they furnish both the children and the money.

Stone’s response was to create a better-informed education consumer. He formed the Education Consumers’ ClearingHouse in 1995. The ClearingHouse, a by-subscription, for-profit organization, was originally intended as an information resource for parents who needed help in understanding what they were being told by school officials. It was later expanded to include school board members, legislators, and others who have a consumer’s stake in education.

As a spinoff from the ClearingHouse, Stone also formed the Education Consumers Consultants Network–a team of education professors and experienced educators committed to independent and consumer-friendly consulting service. The Consultants Network provides second opinions on educational research and policy issues and other services of interest to parents and lay policymakers.

Stone has been involved in teacher education for some 30 years. After receiving an Ed.D. in educational psychology from the University of Florida in 1972, he joined the College of Education at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. He is a licensed educational psychologist and licensed school psychologist. His research interests are in teacher effectiveness and the value of teacher certification. He is particularly concerned about the low quality of much educational research. Stone spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: No Child Left Behind has focused attention on measuring how well children are being educated, but what do you see as the fundamental aim of educating a child?

Stone: The end product is a young adult who is equipped to succeed in life. There are certain minimums implied by that definition: certainly literacy skills, a base of substantive knowledge, and of course, values such as honesty and a sense of responsibility. The primary and most immediate goal, however, is academic achievement.

This “ready for work, ready for life” concept of what education should accomplish is a very broad definition. Parents want more than the minimums. They want their youngster to “be all you can be”–just like the Army recruitment ads.

Schools generally acknowledge that they are responsible for respecting the aims of parents and the public, but they have their own vision of how the job should be done and how the outcome should be assessed. In effect, they see themselves–not parents, not taxpayers, not elected policymakers–as the ultimate arbiters of questions about education quality.

Clowes: In achieving their aims, educators frequently talk about educating children through the use of “Best Practices.” Are these the teaching practices that over the years have proven to be most effective in educating children?

Stone: The public assumes that “Best Practices” are the ones that work best, i.e., the ones that produce the best learning. In fact, however, the people who wrote the book on Best Practice–Steve Zelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde–use the term to mean something quite different; and when educators talk about Best Practices, they are using Zelman et al.‘s definition.

What Zelman and his colleagues did is distill from the education literature those practices that education experts and teachers consider to be the most desirable. In general, these are practices that involve some form of student-led or student-centered instruction, constructivism, and collaborative learning. They are not necessarily practices that produce the best achievement outcomes; rather they are the ones that agree with the education community’s pedagogical ideals.

In reading, for example, Zelman et al. consider whole language reading instruction to be far superior to the structured and systematic approaches identified by the National Reading Panel’s recent report. With regard to other subjects, Zelman et al. consider discovery-oriented teaching preferable to traditional approaches, i.e., ones that take a direct route to curricular objectives predetermined by the teacher.

Because they believe social workgroup skills are of equal or greater importance than academic outcomes, they consider the use of student-led cooperative learning groups to be better than teacher-led group instruction.

Clowes: Is Best Practice what prospective teachers are taught in schools of education?

Stone: Yes, for the most part. Teacher education institutions are much-taken with the idea of Best Practice. In fact, the Zelman-Daniels-Hyde book, which is currently in its second edition, is very popular in teacher education programs. It’s been widely adopted.

At an American Enterprise Institute program in October 2003, Professor David Steiner of Boston University presented a study of syllabi from teacher education courses taught at universities around the country. It is one of the few studies that takes a look “under the hood” at what is being taught in such courses.

The schools from which the syllabi were drawn include the Universities of Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Columbia, Eastern Michigan, Harvard, Indiana University, Michigan State, Penn State, UCLA, and so forth.

To give you a feel for the results, he found only two syllabi out of about 50 that talked about conventional, teacher-led instruction at all. To the contrary, most of these schools taught cooperative learning, whole-language reading, and so on. The pedagogical philosophy most often found in the more than 200 syllabi was constructivism.

Constructivism is the view that the most important outcome of education is the understanding formed by the individual learner. It is an intuitively appealing concept that contains some very unconventional implications for teaching. Constructivists believe that impressions formed by the learner cannot be controlled by the teacher, thus teachers can be responsible only for what they are teaching, not what students are learning. Consequently, constructivists also disagree that student test performance reflects how well a student was taught. In other words, tests–especially objective tests–fail to take the learner’s unique impressions into account, and therefore fall short as indicators of “true” learning.

It is a view that largely precludes teacher accountability for measured student achievement.

Clowes: The certification of teachers by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards seems to focus on how teachers teach rather than how effectively they teach. What is your view on NBPTS certification?

Stone: The validity of NBPTS standards is unproven insofar as teacher effectiveness is concerned. I did a study of NBPTS-certified teachers here in Tennessee. Tennessee’s accountability system tracks the student achievement gains earned by a given teacher’s students and it does so in a way that levels the playing field among them. What I found is that Tennessee’s board-certified teachers are just average. None was producing exceptional levels of student achievement. Moreover, I have gained access to some more recent data since the 2002 report and the picture remains the same.

The National Board claims the teachers it certifies do an excellent job of teaching, but it has not shown this “excellence” to be linked to measured student achievement. A number of new studies are under way, but no results are available.

There is a hidden issue in the Board’s representations and it goes back to the point I made about Best Practice. National Board officials say board-certified teachers are well-versed in Best Practices, but that isn’t the same thing as claiming they are high producers of student achievement. To the contrary, the Tennessee NBPTS teachers are mostly average.

Clowes: While teachers in elementary schools follow Best Practice, teachers in Head Start and early childhood programs follow “Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” After what you’ve said about Best Practice, is there anything about “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” that should be of concern to parents, too?

Stone: Yes, there is something that people–parents and policymakers–should be concerned about. The term “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” is included in statutes and regulations throughout the states. There are all kinds of state education department guidelines calling for the use of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.

In essence, the term refers to the idea of matching instruction to the child’s developmental stage. Like Best Practice, it is an intuitively appealing concept. As understood by the average person, it means that it is inappropriate to teach algebra to second graders or to use military-style teaching in a preschool.

It is in the application of this otherwise-appealing idea that the problem arises. When teachers talk about using Developmentally Appropriate Practice in schools and daycare centers, they mean the child should be taught in a way that best suits the child’s stage of intellectual development. In theory, at least, they are optimizing benefit to the child and avoiding the harm–i.e., frustration, burnout, etc.–that might result if the child is asked to do more than what the child’s developmentally governed capacity is presumed to permit.

The problem is that a child’s degree of intellectual development is not a visible, easily assessed characteristic like height or weight; as a result, teachers using Developmentally Appropriate Practice are rarely confident about spurring or challenging a child to move beyond his or her present level of learning. Instead, they let the child set the pace of educational progress–a tactic that works fine but only with children who are clearly ready to move ahead, i.e., visibly energetic, ambitious, and probably from advantaged circumstances.

Clowes: What are curricular or academic standards for teaching in early education?

Stone: The Developmentally Appropriate Practice concept is the centerpiece to early childhood educators’ ideas about sound teaching practice. It is also a prime impediment to the establishment of any kind of academic standards for Head Start and other early childhood programs.

For years, the whole early childhood education profession has resisted the idea that children should reach certain academic benchmarks–like being able to say their ABCs or being able to count to 50–because they feared such goals might overtax the capacity of some children.

Here, for example, is the policy statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in 1988. The author is Sue Bredekamp, who was then the head of NAEYC and is still one of the major figures in that organization.

The policy states the following actions are developmentally inappropriate for preschoolers:

  • “The teacher’s role is to correct errors and make sure that the child knows the right answer in all subject areas.”
  • “Teachers reward children for correct answers with stickers or privileges, or praise them in front of the group, and hold them up as examples.”

Note that these are considered to be inappropriate practices. A number of observers have commented on the effect of such strictures. Here is a quote from John Merrow in a September 25, 2002 article in Education Week about the failure of Head Start:

“One reason for [Head Start’s] failure was the misguided practice at some Head Start centers where teaching of the alphabet was actually banned.”

Although Merrow says banning the alphabet was “misguided” and presumably anomalous, it is a practice that clearly follows from the NAEYC guidelines for Developmentally Appropriate Practice.

The effect of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in preschool programs is that children who are advantaged and who naturally seek to extend themselves are further enriched. But the children who lack motivation and entry-level skills, such as the ability to say their ABCs, are left at the starting gate. Developmentally Appropriate Practice amounts to a pedagogical policy of non-intervention: You may do harm, so don’t do anything.

Apparently, NAEYC has sensed that the DAP doctrine is out of step with the times. In policy statements of recent years, NAEYC has moved away from using the term “Developmentally Appropriate Practice.” Recent documents, such as “Pre-K Guidelines for Learning and Teaching,” speak of “Appropriate Practice” or “Culturally Appropriate Practice.” In truth, they are talking about another version of the same thing–i.e., a theory-based restriction on practice that precludes preschool accountability for literacy outcomes.

Despite the NAEYC’s public posture, Developmentally Appropriate Practice remains a staple at NAEYC-accredited day care centers and Head Start programs. The same holds true for the teacher-training programs. They still exaggerate the dangers of expecting too much and ignore the dangers of expecting too little. Now, however, they call it “Appropriate Practice.”

Clowes: How do you see school choice affecting early childhood education practices, teacher training programs, and what goes on in schools?

Stone: The public schools, teacher training institutions, and stakeholder groups like the National Education Association are so large and well-established that market competition is the only practical way to restrain their overwhelming ability to pursue their self interests. Surges of public concern can alter policies temporarily but these stakeholder groups are like the tide: They eventually get want they want–which is typically more money. Choice and a freer marketplace are desperately needed.

At present, the balance of power between consumers and providers is slowly moving in a more favorable direction for consumers. Consumers are becoming aware that educators have a self interest in what they tell the public about education and so consumers are beginning to seek sources that are dedicated to consumers exclusively. Of course, that’s where our Education Consumers ClearingHouse and Consultants Network come in. We are only one of a number of organizations that stand for consumers, but we may be unique in that we are taking an entrepreneurial approach to the issue. Our aim is to let the market assure our credibility. If we fail to demonstrate our commitment to consumers, we will go out of business.

A marketplace dominated by education’s producers is not good for the consuming public or for education. For decades, educational fads and fancies have gone unchallenged because lay decisionmakers had no credible source of consumer-friendly information. The human cost to the children and families who were subjected to these experiments has never been tallied nor has anyone been held accountable.

When bridges collapse or patients die, the public demands answers. But when education fails, policymakers return to the same establishment sources for more advice. There couldn’t be a more powerful demonstration of the degree to which the education community’s views dominate the conventional wisdom.

Plainly, education will never improve so long as policymakers keep buying their ideas from the same people. Fads and pedagogical snake oil are still being promoted in schools, authenticated by researchers, and validated by licensure and certification mechanisms. We at the ClearingHouse are working alongside other independent organizations to provide a consumer-friendly alternative.

For more information …

Visit the Education Consumers’ ClearingHouse Web site at