Where Al Shanker Stood: Verbal Ability As The Key To Learning

We found this 1974 Al Shanker New York Times column to be of interest, both in terms of current debates over variations in "opportunity to learn" and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and in regard to recent research on the importance of oral language development in early childhood (see here for more); we hope you agree. 

It is regrettable that the important work being done by the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement has received such scant notice, not only in the media but in educational circles as well. It deserves better. Founded in 1959, IEA is an organization of 22 national education research centers whose basic purpose, through use of tests, surveys, questionnaires and other methods, is to develop generalizations for education throughout the world. It has done studies of achievement in mathematics, science, reading comprehension, civic education and foreign languages.

A good summary of the findings of recent IEA research is provided by Benjamin S. Bloom, Professor of Education at the University of Chicago and one of the founding members of the Association, in his article, "Implications of the IEA Studies for Curriculum and Instruction," in the May 1974 issue of the University of Chicago School Review. Bloom, to begin with, sees as a salient virtue of IEA research that its methods have been developed for the specific purpose of international comparison. In previous cross-national studies, he observes, "the evaluation instruments developed in one country typically showed that country to be superior to the other countries included in the study." The procedures which IEA has helped develop avoid such bias. The IEA studies, Bloom reports, reveal that there are vast educational differences between countries. "If school marks were assigned in the various nations on the basis of the highest nation's standards (where perhaps the lowest fifth might be regarded as failing), then almost 50 percent of the students in the lowest scoring of the developed countries would fail but about 85 percent of the students in the average developing nation would fail." In terms of grade norms, "it is evident that the attainment obtained in one year of schooling in the highest nation requires one and one-half or two years of schooling in the less favored nations. To put it in terms of time and human resources spent, it may cost twice as much for a particular level of learning in one place as it does in another."

Accounting for the differences between national educational systems are three basic variables: opportunity to learn as judged by teachers; teacher competence in both subject matter and method; and time, in terms of number of years of instruction in a subject, number of hours of instruction a week or year, and number of hours of homework a week in a given subject. Bloom considers the first -- opportunity to learn -- the most important. This variable has to do essentially with the curriculum as reflected in the classroom experience. It is significant that IEA research has relied rather on teachers' valuations at the classroom level than on published official versions of the curriculum. "Beautiful curriculum plans," he asserts, "have little relevance for education unless they are translated into what happens in the classroom..." He then goes on to say, "If the curriculum is to be brought to life in the classroom, many of the nations will have to provide more pre-service and in-service education for teachers."

Teacher competence varies greatly between nations, according to IEA surveys. "In one developing nation," Bloom tells us, "a sample of science teachers took the IEA science test and scored below the average secondary school student on the international norms. It is unlikely that students can learn much from teachers who do not thoroughly understand the subject they are teaching."

Regarding the element of time, described by him as a combination of curriculum and instruction, Bloom tells us, "There is a significant relationship between the amount of time the student devotes to a subject and learning in that subject." That would appear to be stating the obvious. Yet on the international scene, Bloom says, the explanations for differing degrees of school involvement are extremely complex. It is unfortunate, nevertheless, that cynical, schools-don't-make-a-difference critics of education on the domestic front make it necessary for research to prove what has for centuries been a matter of plain common sense.

In all countries participating in the IEA surveys, one factor -- verbal ability -- was perceived as dominant in the learning process. In Bloom's words, "learning in the schools is, now and for the foreseeable future, likely to be based on verbal instruction to groups of students using textbooks and other instructional materials which are largely verbal in nature ... The early development of verbal ability (vocabulary and reading comprehension) appears to be necessary if the child is to learn well - or even to survive - in school." The IEA study of reading comprehension showed that "the three most important variables related to level of students' reading comprehension are reading resources in the home, socioeconomic status (father's occupation and parents' education), and parents' interest in the child's education and the encouragement they give the child to read ... Throughout the world there appears to be a curriculum and instruction in the home as well as curriculum and instruction in the school. The effects of the home curriculum and instruction for reading comprehension and word knowledge appear to be so powerful that schools are not able to compensate adequately for the differences already present when children enter school ... Societies which wish to improve children's school learning have only two realistic policies to follow: increase the effectiveness of the early education of children and/or increase the effectiveness of verbal education in the schools, especially during the ages of 6 to 10."

Many IEA countries, according to Bloom, are weighing the feasibility of early education for children in the 3-6 age group, "especially for children who are likely to be deprived because of inadequacies in the home curriculum and instruction." Here in the United States, he notes, research has shown it to be possible to find ways to help parents improve learning conditions in the home. The 6-10 age group is the focus of special concern. Says Bloom, "While there is no point in the child's educational development at which it is too late to improve conditions, there is considerable evidence that the critical point for verbal education in schools as they are presently organized is before age 10. If home and school do a good job in this area by age 10, school is an exciting and interesting place for children. If they do not, then school is a frustrating place which can do great damage to the child's self-view and attitude toward learning and development."

The IEA findings on the learning process in early childhood deserve serious consideration here in the U.S. at this time. In the recent past, schools refrained from providing early childhood education. The major reasons given were that there was a lack of space in school buildings to provide for such programs and that there was a shortage of qualified teachers. Now, with the decline in pupil enrollment and the resultant teacher surpluses, we have, before it is too late, an opportunity to provide the right basis for education during the early years.

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