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Perils of the Pendulum Resisting Education's Fads

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Teachers call it the "reform du jour," and for many, it's the biggest challenge at the start of any school year. That's when the latest idea for how to improve student performance kicks in.

In the 1970s, it was the open classroom, which knocked out the walls between classes to create flexible space and make learning more fun. Soon, carpenters were tapping away at new walls to get the noise level back down.

In the 1980s, many districts tucked away the phonics books to make way for "whole-language" instruction, which emphasized context and the personal value of reading.

The new books were engaging, but many kids weren't learning to read. Teachers were ordered to dig out the flash cards.

The 1990s brought down new mandates to teach to individual "learning styles - despite a lack of consensus on how to measure learning styles, or whether it is better to teach to a learning style or to help students overcome it.

Even critics note these ideas have valid points. But they were often adopted without data - without balancing the claims of competing teaching techniques - and then taken to extremes. That resulting pendulum swings are prompting a reevaluation of how educators adopt new practices in the classroom.

"There's a very substantial metamorphosis of the culture of education going on in this country - a new demand for research-based educational practices," says Douglas Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators, which is based in Eugene, Ore.

Education isn't the only field to cope with fads, but it has features that make it especially vulnerable. A large number of unjuried professional journals let inadequate research pass uncritically. Key decisionmakers, like urban superintendents, typically hold jobs for three years and feel pressed to show results fast.

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