Silver bullet: More time teaching at kid's level

Stuart Buck praises Barker Bausell’s Too Simple to Fail: A Case for Educational Change, which argues that “the only thing that improves education is spending more time on instruction at a given child’s level.”

Bausell suggests adding pre-K (using direct instruction) BS lengthening the school day and year. Schools would focus on relevant instruction, eliminating time wasters such as “candy sales, worthless school assemblies, loudspeaker announcements, sports activities, ad nauseam.” Disruptive students would be removed from class.  (“If this means that we have to leave certain children behind because they can’t meet behavioral expectations (or we don’t know how to enable them to conform), so be it.”)

In addition, Buck summarizes:

The entire curriculum should be exhaustive and detailed, and computerized tests should be based exclusively on the curriculum.

. . . Teacher behavior should be “monitored constantly to ensure the delivery of sufficient instruction, as well as satisfactory coverage of (and minimal departures from) the established curriculum.”

. . . Use efficient instructional methods. Bausell points to an example of inefficiency: “My son once had a teacher who had an elaborate class project involving building a medieval castle out of popsicle sticks that stretched over a period of several months. Regardless of what the teacher thought she was accomplishing, this is valuable time wasted . . . ‘”

Finally, recruit volunteer tutors who can help students practice reading sight words or learn math with flash cards.

Most teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction” for children with a wide range of learning needs. Some students are way ahead, some on track, some way behind. Some speak English fluently; some don’t. A few students have disabilities. Others are behavior problems. If teachers had more time, no distractions and groups of children working at the same level . . .  Teachers, what do you think?

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  1. palisadesk says:

    I bought this book last week after reading about it on Stuart’s blog. I can’t give a summative precis yet, but so far I am favorably impressed. The author has an illuminating chapter on the limitations of current testing protocols to assess classroom learning and/or teacher performance in a fine-grained way which includes some insightful observations and startling data points that were new to me.

    His point about the need for ZPD instruction should be self-evident but he outlines it in a coherent and persuasive fashion. I’ve read about 3 chapters, will have more to say when I finish. So far I recommend it, as a genuinely original contribution to the debate.

  2. How does he explain the high success of schools in Finland? Academic instruction doesn’t begin until the child is 7. The school day is not particularly long. And Finnish schools are very egalitarian. Ability grouping does not begin until age 15. Schools work to keep special education students in the regular classroom, and retention is not allowed. Especially in science classes, the curriculum uses hands on inquiry methods, and science is the area in which Finnish schools show the highest level of achievement.

    Especially for younger students, long school days often lead to exhaustion and frustration instead of higher achievement.

  3. Cranberry says:

    Maybe, by 7, some of the differences in child development don’t matter any more, so the Finn’s later start serves to even the playing field. Some kids are ready to read at earlier ages than others. If you start formal reading instruction at 4, some students who would be ready to read at age 7 will be tagged as “poor readers.” Likewise, the skill of sitting still develops with time. Some wiggly 5 year olds are much more composed at 7.

  4. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    Finland has its own national identity for a population that’s roughly half the population of Los Angeles County.

    Finland is 93% Finns. (

    You could probably shut down their public schools and they wouldn’t do much worse than they do right now on international tests.

    Actually, now that I think of it… that’s probably true here as well.


  5. “You could probably shut down their public schools and they wouldn’t do much worse than they do right now on international tests. Actually, now that I think of it… that’s probably true here as well.”

    Correct. See Heckman, James (2011). The American family in black and white. Daedalus, 140 (2), 1-20.

  6. Actually, Finland did not always have a high achieving educational system. In the 1960’s, Finland’s testing results were mediocre. They reformed their educational system by working to improve teacher quality. Finish teachers come from the top third of their class and must complete a master’s degree.

    If having a small, homogenous population were the secret of Finland’s success, one would expect Norway to score high on international tests, but this is not the case.

    You might want to check out the article at this website:,1

  7. A fun exercise would be reducing the list of “reforms” to those that could actually be implemented without being in direct violation of the ADA/Civil Rights laws. It’s nice to dream, though. Removing sports. That kills me. Good one. Really, for a bunch of people who think education should be run like a business, do you really think you can cut activities that subtract from the bottom line of major private interests?

  8. CarolineSF says:

    Also, the reason Finland is being discussed at all is that it was touted in “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” a movie hostile to U.S. public schools and teachers and supportive of charter schools, privatization, punitive high-stakes testing, a deprofessionalized, temp-worker teaching force, and the rest of the corporate-reform package. It was rapidly pointed out that pretty much everything about Finland’s educational system is the opposite of the practices advocated by the corporate reformers.

    But that means it’s not really valid to say “you can’t compare Finland,” because it was the voices of corporate reform that compared Finland.

  9. Time on task. Now, there’s the critical issue. But do we know how much time in a school day teachers actually get to teach? I think not. Where is the research on that critical fact? We need it. Teachers end up doing so much during the day that is not directly related to teaching. We need data here.

  10. I don’t necessarily agree with cutting out the occasional assembly–boring never helped anyone–but schools need to focus on learning the basics, and not on social justice or blah, blah, blah.

    My 2nd grader’s class did a project where they determined whether it was a good idea or a bad idea to build a new mall. Fine and good, but the only focus was on how it would kill the plants and animals that currently live where the mall was to be built. Of course, at the end of the unit, all the children declared that building a mall was bad. I asked her about the people that would work at such a mall, so they could earn money and she looked at me blankly. That had never come up.

    I’d rather have them chanting, “2×3 is 6, 3×3 is 9” than learning how to do “research” that only looks at one side.

  11. bill eccleston says:

    Finland, Finland, Finland! The mania for Finnish education, I think, is “Exhibit A” for stupidity that has for a century masqueraded for thoughtful reflection in the American debate over school “reform.”

    What on earth does America have in common with tiny, socially homogenous, politically socialist Finland? All the points made on this score above are telling.
    There is one, however, that is never, ever mentioned, one that reveals the depth of our national ignorance about reading instruction, the Finnish writing system has a “shallow orthography.” Our English writing system, in contrast, has a “deep” orthography. The shallow orthography of Finnish largely disposes of Problem Number One in any education system: teaching kids how to read!

    Now, if you don’t know what an orthography is and how it affects reading instruction from one end of the pool to the other, don’t feel stupid even if you are a reading specialist. In American schools of education we do not teach reading instruction from an empirical, scientific point of view. So you are a member of the club. Start with wikipedia and then try Marilyn Yeager Adams, though be warned that getting through Adams’ seminal book on reading theory and instruction is a lot like tackling Moby Dick—many try but few succeed. Louis Moats, who put together the AFT’s reading instruction program was perfectly apt when she chose “Reading IS Rocket Science” as the program’s title.

  12. LSquared says:

    I don’t like the attitude of “watching the teachers closely”. One thing that I think helps Finland is that they have required their teachers to become experts, and then they treat them as experts. There are inefficient things going on in classrooms, but on the other hand some of the very best things I have seen in classrooms were not things that came from the textbook–they came from the teacher. I don’t have enough faith in our textbooks to want to have our teachers following them more closely, and doing what makes sense less.

  13. Bill,
    I assure you that I do have a copy of Marilyn Yeager Adams book. I bought it years ago and read it all the way through with no difficulty. I have also read Louisa Moats’ work on reading instruction.

    I am aware that that the Finnish language has a perfect one-to-one letter sound correspondence. This has been noted by a number of a commentators. But Finnish orthography has not changed since the 1960’s. A shallow orthography cannot explain the radical improvement of Finnish educational achievement.

    It is difficult to understand why the Finnish education reforms make you so angry. These reforms have centered on improving teacher quality, taking teachers from the top third of their class and educating them well. Louisa Moats in particular has always insisted that that teaching reading is challenging work that required well educated teachers.

  14. bill eccleston says:

    The reforms don’t make me angry, pal. It’s the obsession that a country so exponentially dissimilar from ours could serve as a realistic model. The orthography reference underlines the point: while the wonks here in the blogisphere and the eduthinktanks pontificate about Finland, and especially about Finland’s teacher training, they largely remain ignorant of the pathetic state of literacy training here.
    If they would drop the messianic thinking about sweeping change—adopting this model or that model—they could, as a matter of practical politics, zero in on one big goal and at least effect reform reading instruction, the very bedrock of an education.
    See, I’m a middle school teacher, and year in and year out I see lives needlessly blighted by bad reading instruction, damage that as an individual I am hopeless to repair. I’ve seen an effective, code-based remedial program that was ignorantly terminated by a “reform” superintendent and then institutionally forgotten when that person left. Louisa Moats, if you’ve a live presentation by her, calls this “educational malpractice.” Well, what are we going to do about that given our demography and political system? Keep dreaming about Finland? Rather we should extract something practical from our examination of the Finnish system, and what I see is that question of orthography and our widespread ignorance of it.
    Finally, I’ve been reading this blog every day for three years, and not once have I ever seen the word “orthography” mentioned in any context, let alone this one about Finland.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Learning English is tough. Irrregular orthography, like irregular verbs, requires rote work. Rote work is not uniformly considered a Good Thing among the ed biz, especially the edufadmongers.
    I’ve studied four languages, Latin, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Each is more regular in orthography, in my experience, than English.
    I’ve worked with exchange students for many years and seen how even bright kids can struggle. We had a couple of kids from France and Belgium and a couple of native Spanish speakers to a party once, and got them going on “sheet, shit, sheep, ship, chip, cheat, keep,” and a couple of others. Great fun.
    To learn “sound it out” is tough with so many exceptions, although the alternatives are either tougher or not as effective.
    Another issue is the spoken vocab a kid brings to learning to read and write. Shortfalls in spoken vocab either as to content or as to demographic-specific accent make it even more difficult.
    Comparisons to other countries are, thus, not necessarily useful.
    Still, it would be useful to look at the exemplar countries and ask if a kid who is only marginally literate can get their equivalent of a high school diploma.

  16. In most cases I would say that a marginally literate student in those other nations wouldn’t earn a diploma.

  17. How do you explain away the success of Finnish math students compared to Minnesotan students (who are overwhelmingly middle-class and of Scandinavian origin)? Hanushek found that twice as many students in Finland reach the “advanced” level on international math tests compared to students in Minnesota. That’s not demographics or it being easier to learn to read Finnish. That’s something to do with the schools itself.

    Having used a curriculum designed by a Finnish math teacher (Math Mammoth), I think that curriculum has a lot to do with it. The Finnish way of teaching math is very similar to the Asian way of teaching math, and very different from a program like the notorious Every Day Mathematics/

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Crimson Wife.
    Yeah, effective math curricula seem–to this outsider–to be suspect in some quarters. I recall the National Review carried some articles promoting Saxon. I was able to find some rebuttals, but they were more on the esthetics than the results. Drill and kill might work in the military or in industry and private business, but some in the edbiz considers it a slight to the teacher.
    However, marginally, the ability to read helps in following the text. Drop a couple of percent of kids who could have done better if they could follow the text more easily–after a certain amount of frustration, some people just quit–and your overall numbers go down.

  19. SuperSub says:

    Little known fact-
    Finland was ranked the highest academically according to the CAAAA (Classical Ages Academic Aptitude Assessment), beating out even the Greeks and, later, the Romans. Of course, it didn’t make it into the history books because, well, it didn’t really mean anything or change the world in any way. But those classical Finns… it gave them a bit of national pride. True story.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    I remember that! Our flintknapping team had just gone co-ed. We figured what we lost in volume we’d make up in finesse and technique. But the judges were like ltotally Paleolithic and stuff. Like the Mesolithic was just a fad, like a glacier or something.
    I have to admit, though, that The Cattle Raid of Cooley was a lousy rip-off of the Iliad. Could have done better if the committee hadn’t been drinking all that mead crap. Nobody volunteered to be blinded to get the sympathy vote.
    So, anyway, we stole cattle, hired out to fight, and knifed sentries. Temples and stuff you can’t take with you.