What Really Works in the Classroom?

Published March 1, 2001

A review of The Academic Achievement Challenge by Jeanne Chall
(210 pages, ISBN #1572305002 Guilford Publications, Inc., New York, 2000)

Parents, policymakers, and taxpayers would expect any well-trained educator to know the answer to the question posed by this book: What really works in the classroom? But most educators in fact cannot answer the question. That’s because they favor teaching practices that are at odds with ones that are known to work.

Such assertions might sound ill-founded and wildly irresponsible . . . except they are the conclusions of Jeanne Chall, a distinguished professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at the time of her death in 1999. Chall was perhaps the best-known authority in her field; her book, The Academic Achievement Challenge, is the culmination of a 50-year career of teaching, research, and consulting.

Chall’s analysis centers on a longstanding debate about the nature and purpose of teaching. Since the early 1900s, teaching practices used in public schools have fallen into one of two categories: traditional/teacher-centered, or progressive/student-centered.

After doing an admirable job of describing and distinguishing the two viewpoints, Chall concludes that the traditional/teacher-centered approach is unmistakably the more effective teaching practice. Yet the progressive/student-centered approach is the one to which educators increasingly have been drawn, especially since the 1960s.   Traditional vs. Progressive In essence, the traditional approach is intended to teach children the knowledge and skills that adults believe will equip them for adulthood. Adult choices shape the curriculum because children are assumed not to have had the experiences that would enable them to make informed decisions.

The student-centered approach also is intended to develop knowledge and skills in children, but it insists that children must decide how and what they will learn. Student-centered theory assumes that learning is optimal only if it is self-directed.

Classroom practice is usually a fuzzy blend of these two views. Educators idealize the student-centered approach but parents and school boards want traditional outcomes, so teachers try to bring about adult-selected outcomes by means of student-centered instruction. The result is uncertain achievement, inefficiently obtained.

Chall briefly outlines the emergence of progressive/student-centered practices–such as “whole language” reading instruction, “fuzzy math,” and “self-esteem” enhancement–and links them to the emergence of less-challenging curricula, easier textbooks, and declining SAT scores.

Chall also examines modern experimental findings and older descriptive reports of attempts at progressive schooling. The recent studies include the massive Follow Through project and syntheses by some of the most authoritative voices in educational research: Gage, Good and Brophy, Rosenshine, and Walberg. Chall concludes that all clearly favor the teacher-centered methods, even with regard to “higher-order” outcomes, and especially with disadvantaged students.

Given the evident superiority of the teacher-centered approach–and the demands of parents and policymakers to improve student achievement–why has the progressive/student-centered approach persisted and prospered?   How Teachers Are Taught Chall’s short answer is that teachers are attracted to its joyful nature and its appeal to the values of love, care, and concern for children–what David Elkind has called a sympathetic understanding of the child.

In fact, student-centered instruction does put student enjoyment of the learning experience ahead of everything, including knowledge and skill acquisition. What it ignores, however, is the loss of opportunity and the risk of educational failure that often stem from immature decision-making.

Teachers persist in their beliefs about student-centered instruction because they have been taught that it is “best practice” teaching, i.e., teaching that produces the best outcomes. However, these are not the outcomes most valued by parents and taxpayers, but rather unspecified knowledge and skills presumed to develop by optimizing the immediate subjective experience of the learner.

This discrepancy between the kind of teaching the public wants and the kind of teaching education professors idealize was the subject of Public Agenda’s 1997 survey of teacher educators, Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education. (See “Survey: Education Teachers Out of Touch,” School Reform News, December 1997.) The results demonstrate the nearly unanimous adherence of teacher educators to the progressive/student-centered view. E. D. Hirsch puts it this way: Teacher training institutions now are so adamantly student-centered that alternatives are “unthinkable.”

Chall could have presented plenty of evidence implicating teacher training’s role in teacher beliefs. She might have noted that teacher training institutions led by Teacher’s College at Columbia University have carried the progressive banner from the beginning. She also could have cited the teacher training and licensure standards that are collaboratively set by teacher’s colleges and states. Virtually all are congenial to the student-centered view and antagonistic toward the traditional.

Despite these omissions, The Academic Achievement Challenge clearly implicates the teacher training community in public education’s failures–especially its failures with regard to disadvantaged children. Chall’s discussion makes it clear that the relevant research has been ignored and that most teachers are captives of a viewpoint that does not respect the public’s educational priorities.

A hundred years ago, student-centered teaching was a welcome alternative to the hickory stick. Today it is an albatross around the neck of school reform. So long as teachers continue to believe that good teaching requires juvenile interests and proclivities to take precedence over adult expectations, public schooling will not well serve the long-term best interests of children.

J. E. Stone is an educational psychologist and professor in the College of Education at East Tennessee State University. He heads the Education Consumers ClearingHouse, which may be found at www.education-consumers.com.