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JOE GRAVES: Last days of summer spent preparing for students to come

While I read a great deal many educational journal articles and mounds of research, the truth is that much of that reading is abysmally unproductive. One of the main reasons for this is simply that education is a soft science; some would in fact argue it isn't a science at all, but an art.

Another is that most educators and journalists who cover education have no idea of the difference between causality and correlation, the former being of immense importance and the latter of none whatsoever. (To highlight the difference, consider a study which argues that playing the harp well causes students to excel in reading and mathematics. The much more likely scenario is that coming from a family of high income is probably the cause of both. Yet, such studies will quickly be cited as a reason to start harp studies in schools across the nation.)

When study after study fails to account for the difference between causality — one factor causing the other — and correlation — two outcomes being associated but caused by a third factor — the result is educators chasing their tails in every conceivable direction, instituting reform after reform and producing lots of thunder but little lightning. The other problem, endemic in education, is that a failure to focus on what will work with sufficient resources and time due to so many different initiatives being tried means that nothing is implemented well and even the most promising reform, like my backyard pumpkins this summer — dies on the vine, a victim not of the wrong idea but inadequate resolution. (In a wonderful counter-example, a bit of educational research that really is important and accurate, the authors Joyce and Showers in their work, Student Achievement through Staff Development, just nail the importance of implementing things with sufficient levels of commitment.)

Then again, one can become too focused, ignoring the changing needs of students and the times in which they live, rather than we lived. One of the problems of education and educational research is really no one's fault, other than the pace of change in our society. While it would be nice to focus on one or two changes and do them really well, it is also true that changes are coming down the pike so fast and furious that we have no choice but to pursue what are probably too many at any given time.

Last week, before the students returned to our classrooms (yesterday was a happy day, indeed), we held three days of pre-service training for our teachers and staff. (Humorously, an educator from a different institution referred to these days as the "week of interminable meetings," which I could not help but chuckle at both because it was funny and because it has rung true for all of us at one point or another.) Two of those days were devoted to largely our own teachers educating their colleagues about the latest educational reforms. And I frankly can't think of any of them that were not effective, necessary and even compelling.

Should we have not focused on CPR and first aid in our obligation to first keep students safe? Does anyone doubt that, in this age of increasingly facile and ubiquitous technology, that the flipped classroom — in which exemplary lessons are presented to the students outside the classroom on the computer or other technology and the teacher then works with students to fully integrate the concepts and skills in a way that meets each student's individual needs — can be an improvement in many ways over the old sage on the stage? Speaking of which, in an age of increasingly mass customization in manufacturing and the service industries, don't we owe it to students to differentiate instruction so that we meet individual student needs rather than aim for a middle ground on which almost no one stands? And as iPads become more and more accessible and a blizzard of education applications for them are created virtually every day, don't we owe it to students to have classroom teachers trained in their usage?

Each and every one of these topics is critical to the success of our educational program and realizing its potential for the maximum positive impact on students and each was dug in to by our faculty last week. Thus, while it would be nice to focus on one thing at a time, the reality of the modern world is such that, like everyone these days, we have to keep doing more with the same or even fewer resources.

Doing just that was how your child's teacher spent the last few days of summer.