Statement by Arthur Scinta at Pelham Board of Education Meeting on Feb. 9, 2016
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the topic of the issue of introducing and expanding the International Baccalaureate program in Pelham Middle School and PMHS. I attended the Board of Ed meeting last month and was very impressed with some of the lessons presented by middle school teachers, particularly the cross-disciplinary approach for math/science in plotting a wave curve. It was also nice to hear the anecdotes that students seem happier and more enthusiastic.
But upon doing further research into the IB program, I think a more rigorous analysis needs to be undertaken, one that does a full accounting of the costs of the program and that measures those costs against whatever benefits of IB may be while also considering alternative programs that could be funded with those tax dollars.At the same time, it would be helpful to have a full and thoughtful risk/reward analysis that examines what is the best outcome from IB and what are the risks of adopting this significant change to the PMHS and MS curricula?
One risk is the costs of implementing and sustaining the program. While some of the basic costs for application and annual fees have been disclosed, there are many other soft costs in teacher time and administrative resources that have not been quantified. The full extent of these have not been disclosed, but from attending the two meetings on the subject since the summer, here are a few that were mentioned:
• MS principal & assistant principal time in writing applications– described in last meeting as “considerable time;”
• Training – professional development of 1-2 teachers from each of 8 departments;
• Full day workshop for 85 teachers;
• Professional development sessions three times per month where the “focus is on IB and nothing else”
• Creating website “our MYP Journey”
• Revising rubicon atlas to match IB planner
• Category 1 training – 4 teachers with Mrs. Clark
• Curriculum changes: adding world language, adding art to 6th grade, music 6 every other day, replacing computer apps with Tech 6 and reference to 13 program changes (while these may be changes to the curriculum that we may have wanted anyway, it is still important to know the costs)
• At the January 12th meeting, there was reference to teachers having to create more than 30 new units
• Steering committee time
While teacher time is not a hard cost, it is important to understand how the teacher time spent on IB was used previously and what is being lost?
The administration and teacher time needs to be quantified for the start-up, but also for the ongoing training:
• Our IB administrator stated that the IB “love to publish books” and that there is “another 100 page manual every couple of months”
o What is the intended effect of these books?How is it digested? Is it infused into curriculum? What teacher time is required?
On a going forward basis, there is also a need to understand and quantify the degree of new teacher training. One of the major complaints by schools that have implemented IB is that the teacher turnover rate is high so that, unless the teacher is coming from another IB school (which seems unlikely given how few NYS schools have adopted IB), there will be a high degree of new training required regularly.
We also need to understand if the cost of the program is sustainable before implementation so that the initial costs do not end up wasted if the program if discontinued.In fact, IB approval specifically calls for extensive engagement with the community to make sure it has the community support for sustainability including not just the initial but the ongoing funding.
The costs appear sufficiently high that there may be a likelihood of IB being discontinued. As of 2013, IB was dropped after being implemented in 74 school districtsin the United States primarily because of the expense from the fully-loaded costs. These were districts from coast to coast: Coronado and Anaheim high schools in California to Ohio, Virginia and Georgia.
The International Baccaulaureateprogram is also disappearing in the UK as outlined in a paper from spring 2015 titled “Rise & Decline of the International Baccaulaureate Program in the UK” after a general finding that the UK “A Levels” (the equivalent of our AP exams) were more intensive and knowledge based than IB.
And this is not counting all the schools that considered IB and rejectedit, of which there appear to be many.
While the cost to the taxpayer of the program should not be understated, there are larger potential costs and bigger potential risks:
The IB program requires an inquiry-based approach to teaching. To quote the IB publication “Education for a Better World”:“students drive the learning process,” the focus in not on teacher-led dissemination of knowledge but learning through “inquiry and investigation” with a “focus on real world examples” with an underlying belief that “content and methodology can be debatable and controversial” where there is “no right answer” and “practicing the tolerance of uncertainty.”
This inquiry-based approach represents a real risk that it will lead to less acquisition of knowledge, that it will require the devotion of even greater amount of time by students and that it will eliminate or reduce the skill of memorization.
There was, in the 1970s a similar inquiry-based approach to teaching law called “critical legal studies” method, that believed it was less important to teach what the law is and more what it should be, to free law students from the constraints of traditional notions of American jurisprudence and to allow freedom to explore new ideas about how to arrive at a fair and just society. You don’t hear much about CLS anymore because it was incredibly successful at producing law school graduates who were incapable of passing a bar exam or having any of the knowledge or skills that a potential employer would find valuable.
In fact, extensive studies over the last half century have demonstrated quite unambiguously and persuasively that inquiry-based approaches to education are not more successful than traditional teaching methods and most studies have shown that they are far less successful.
Pelham has already had an experience with this approach to teaching from the “Investigations Math” program (officially called “Investigations in Numbers, Data & Space) that proved such a colossal failure. The failure of the approach is born out by studies and research into this teaching philosophy.
IB is “investigations math” on steroids because it seeks to take the same approach and apply it across all subjects throughout the MS and now potentially 9th& 10th grades.
In the last few decades, there has been a tremendous increase in understanding about how the human brain operates, including cognitive abilities that informs effective means of teaching. There is now understood to be a clear relationship between long-term memory and working memory and how the two work together in the learning process. Under an inquiry-based approach such as IB, long-term memory is not the focus. Indeed, during one of the prior meetings, one of the presenters went so far as to say that the internet has reduced the need to memorize information because it is all available through an iPad. This is an alarming statement to come from a teacher in the Pelham School District. It would be as if upon the invention of the printing press, people were to have thought that they no longer needed to know anything that could be found in a book. But it is also at odds with what is known about long-term memory, that, in the words of one scientist, is not “a passive repository of information that we merely repeat based on what we have learned” but “the central dominant structure of human cognition.” There is a relationship between working memory, which can only process a handful of elements at one time, and the ability of working memory to rely also subconsciously on stored memory.
In a paper written by three professors from Netherlands, Australia & US, “Why Minimially Guided Instruction Does Not Work” they concluded that:
“Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information is unlikely to be effective. Recommendations on advocating minimal guidance during instruction proceed as though working memory does not exist or if it does exist, that it has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information, the very information of interest to constructivist teaching procedures. We know that problem solving, wjich is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory. The onus should surely be on those who support inquiry-based instruction to explain how such a procedure circumvents the well-known limits of working memory when dealing with new information.”
In addition to deliberately reducing instruction in the classroom, the IB also seeks to put subject matter in the context of what is called “real life” experience. While this may serve a useful function of igniting interest or enthusiasm, studies demonstrate that it cannot be a substitute for abstract learning or helping students to be able to think in the theoretical. Again to point to the experience Pelham had with investigations math, the parent-formed “Math Commtittee” invited a group of college professors , one of whom explained that the major flaw with investigations math and similar curriculum is that they seek to deal with real ilfe examples at the expense of the theorietical. “Six ÷ 3 has lots of real life interpretations, 3 ÷8 has fewer real life computations and when a student gets to high school and encounter the expressing x ÷ y, it is extremely important to understand the expression has zero real life computations.”
This is why it is no exaggeration to say that International Baccalaureate is “Investigations Math” on steroids because it is precisely at the point in education career that students should be thinking in the abstract and in the theoretical that the IB pushes them back into experiential learning.
We might be led to think that all of the criticism of the IB approach of Inquiry based learning is just a matter of opinion – I suppose it might be so under the IB belief that there is no right answer or we should engage in “practicing the tolerance of uncertainty.” But in fact, there is a large body of recent empirical studies that build a solid research-based case against using inquiry-based education approaches to successful teaching. By contrast, the studies that are typically relied upon are outdated, mostly having been done in the 1960s before the advances in understanding cognition.
- Like the CLS movement in the law, a similar approach was taken in medical schools using a “problem-based learning approach” to avoid having to attend dull lectures or take memory-based exams. Multiple analyses of the results completed from 1993 to 2000 found the efficacy of the approach questionable at best and in some cases found that the approach lowered basic science exam scores, did not improve residency selections and – very importantly – increased the number of study hours each day.
The increase in number of study hours seems to be a hallmark of inquiry-based learning because, after all the “investigation”, students still have to study material if it is to have any hope of residing in long-term memory.
In the last 20 years, no less than a dozen other empirical studies completed under controlled conditions and validated statistically have demonstrated that inquiry-based teaching is an inferior method to the acquisition of knowledge, which, in turn, is shown to be essential to higher levels of learning.
One scholarly paper summarized the weight of the evidence against inquiry-based learning: “After half a century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even for students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance while learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches.”
The question was asked at one of the prior Board of Ed meetings about how we will measure the effect of IB in the MYP? There was no answer. The answer is best found in reviewing all of the studies that have already been conducted on inquiry-based learning. We might also wisely take note of our own experience in Pelham with “Investigations Math.”
We surely could not hope or expect to conduct our own “test.” Not only would this add to the already burdensome number of testing done on our students, but, based on a review of the way these studies are conducted, we could never hope to accurately gauge the effect with any statistical significance in a period of time that would save our students from a prolonged exposure to what existing studies demonstrate is a poor education method.
The risks of adopting IB are real:
- The risk of using several graduating class years of students as proverbial guinea pigs in an experiment that every empirical study and scores of education psychologists have indicated will not succeed and is likely to fail;
- IB, in marketing terms, is like a brand. It carries with it an association with which we would be identified. In adopting IB, we are agreeing to adopt the standards of that brand and giving up, to one degree or another, our own. “Pelham Memorial High School” is a brand and it is a brand that has become well recognized in recent years by the Most Competitive Schools, which have been admitting our graduates in increasing numbers. By not adopting IB, we have the ability to continue to build that brand by our own standards and by our own approach to education and without running the risk of becoming identified with a brand -- IB – over which we have no control.
- Home values, which represent to most people, their largest single asset are always at risk with every significant decision made by this board. You may think of yourself as being responsible for a very large budget, which you are, but you are also responsible for the total home values of Pelham which is currently valued at nearly $2.5 Billion. To quantify that risk and the effect of the quality of a school district on that value, consider that Pelham’s average sale price/sf was about $360. Contrast that to a nearby community with less successful schools where the home price per square foot is about $180 or one-half of Pelham.
There are red flags that we should not be taking the risk at all of adopting the IB approach to teaching, but if the Board of Ed does decide to take this gamble, then please manage the risk.
IB has just started to be implemented in the middle school. Let’s see how this goes, allow those who have just started this in the sixth grade to progress another year. Then let’s see how they perform. Let’s see what their parents think compared to older siblings who have not been exposed to IB. If we decide to keep it for another year, let’s see what the high school teachers think, whether they find the students better prepared for high school work, whether they really are better learners. Let’s see how they do on standardized tests and ultimately how they do on college board exams and admission to college.
But let’s not “bet the farm” as the expression goes, on a teaching method that has been so widely criticized, if not discredited.
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