‘Incentivists’ vs. ‘instructionists’ in education

A Feb. 27, 2008, article in The Wall Street Journal (“School choice isn’t enough”) featured school reform.

  • Wednesday, April 9, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

A Feb. 27, 2008, article in The Wall Street Journal (“School choice isn’t enough”) featured school reform.

It pointed out that Catholic schools spend less than public schools and produce a superior product. The reason was belief in coherent content-based curriculum and enforced order in the classroom.

Maybe this success with voucher students would encourage public schools to exchange “progressive education” approaches for the Catholic school method.

Not only vouchers, but also charter schools, tuition tax credits, mayoral control and other reforms are now on the table as alternatives to public school systems. A study of the Milwaukee voucher system showed that low-income students benefited academically using Catholic schools. It was less clear that the presence of choice in the community motivated public schools to improve.

Education scholars are in two camps. The “incentivists” have an outlook that remains dominant within school reform circles. They advocate parent choice, pay incentives, vouchers, charter schools, etc. The second, “instructionists,” believe that curriculum change and good teaching are essential to improving schools.

New York City’s school district has embraced the “incentivist” approach with market incentives (i.e., teacher pay, additional education credits, competition in the public schools and cash incentives). It blithely retained a fuzzy math program and teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness. It promotes choice, markets and accountability and has rejected all responsibility for curriculum and instruction. Improvement is minimal and tastes are dumbed down.

Massachusetts has achieved spectacular academic improvement. It has improved more than every other state in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. In 2007, it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. Massachusetts has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools and no market incentives for principals and teachers. Education leaders were “instructionists” who pushed the state’s board of education to mandate a vigorous curriculum for all grades, created tests linked to the curriculum standards and insisted that all potential high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam. Reading instruction in the early grades includes explicit phonics.

A professor of education reform sums it up: “The lesson from Massachusetts is that a strong content-based curriculum, together with upgraded certification regulations and teacher licensure tests that require teacher preparation programs to address that content, can be the best recipe for improving students’ academic achievement.”

The Federal Way School District introduced phonics years ago, accompanied by teacher training, and has accomplished success in WASL tests. However, fuzzy math persists as a result of teaching conceptual math vs. numerical math. New textbooks did not improve WASL scores for lower-half students.

I trust our state school board and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will adopt “instructionist” reform. Incentivist and progressive education programs have been less than successful.

There is little hope of school reform so long as the college and non-college elite and public school establishment continue their course of not providing bottom-half students with proper curriculum and instruction.

John Hoskinson is a Federal Way resident.

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