Book Review: Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change by R. Barker Bausell

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The only way schools can increase learning is to increase the amount of relevant instructional time delivered.

That's R. Barker Bausell's conclusion in his fantastic new book on educational change.

Bausell's appeal is in strong part due to his background and approach to this major question. He is a genuine scientist. Indeed, though he started in education, conducting a variety of experiments focusing on the impacts of tutoring and teacher training, his publications and opinions led him elsewhere, principally as a professor of biostatistics at the University of Maryland though now retired. As a scientist, he defines terms carefully. For example, relevant instruction is instruction which:

  • can be understood (students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills);
  • attended to (the classroom is orderly with no disruptions);
  • involves new topics (students have not already mastered the material);
  • is mandated by the curriculum (teachers are aware and capable of teaching what they should be teaching); and,
  • measured by tests that match the curriculum.

Bausell recounts plenty of research, sometimes decades old, and as he quips, doomed to be forgotten, demonstrating: (1) a positive relationship between the amount of instruction provided and student learning; (2) that 40 to 60 percent of the variation in school achievement can be explained by variations among students (evident at very early ages); (3) that many other school-based factors--such as instructional methods, adopted programs, and governance structures, have no significant impact on student achievement when controlling for learning time; (4) that teachers vary tremendously in classroom efficiency--the ability to squeeze as much instructional time as possible into every day; and, (5) that teacher training appears to have very little discernible effects on student achievement, again when controlling for instructional time.

He notes (and supports) that his theory is consistent with all significant research findings. Moreover, he is able to amply accommodate the research regarding the relationship between student characteristics like socioeconomic status, intelligence, and propensity to learn and the variations in student achievement. His reasoning? A vast literature demonstrates a correlation between socioeconomic status and the educational supports provided in the home --supports which provide significantly more additional instruction before and during the school years. Children from these homes come to school with significant advantages in knowledge and the practice of learning that other children do not have. This gap only widens due to the on-going nature of these supports and the cumulative nature of learning.

Further, intelligence (measured by performance on cognitive tests) must measure learning from somewhere. Learning implies some kind of instruction, broadly conceived, so these tests must be measuring differences in instruction, not latent, immutable characteristics of students. In other words, certain learners are exposed to more instruction outside of schooling. Unless the school, or later environments, provides proportionally more instruction, there will always be cumulative differences in the amount of instruction received and, as a result, stable differences in test scores.

But what does he recommend? There's an obvious simplicity and clarity here: if more instructional time is needed, then one need only subject every educational change under consideration to the question: does this provide more relevant instructional time for at least some students? If the answer is no, forget it.

For example, Bausell notes that advocates for including Latin in school curricula say that it helps improve facility with English grammar and vocabulary. The knowledge and skills are transferable between the subjects--a phenomenon that occurs only in distressingly specific and limited conditions. His answer: "if you want to improve students' English grammar and vocabulary, teach English grammar and vocabulary--not Latin…"

Some of Bausell's strategies that pass this test: universal pre-k programs and full-day kindergarten; longer school day and year; adopting zero tolerance policies for disruptive behavior; developing a standard elementary curriculum with specific, explicit, testable instructional objectives; using efficient instructional methods (direct instruction should be preferred); organizing students around curriculum mastery, not age; evaluating teachers in part on efficiency and adherence to the curriculum; and, developing a large pool of cheap or free tutors for additional tutoring or small-group instruction.

It's a short book, terse and tightly argued but with 20 pages of footnotes to dig into. There is so much compelling, testable, fog-lifting thinking here that it's hard not to enthusiastically list everything in detail. Like the critical chapter on the deplorable state of the standardized testing industry. Bausell is no enemy of such testing--in fact, his theory requires effective assessments of school-based learning--he just thinks the entire practice needs to be up-ended: test items should be clearly derived from school instructional objectives; scores should not be transformed but reported raw; and, relative student performance is unimportant, what matters is individual student mastery of the curriculum. Or, his somewhat gloomy conclusion that measuring the impact of a classroom intervention in actual classrooms is exceedingly difficult because the variations in that environment, especially the enormous differences between the children, will overwhelm the effects of the intervention itself. This is a lesson he learned the hard way in his early work, before he switched to conducting learning research in tightly controlled laboratory conditions. There's much more--read the book.