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Paul Gruchow: False logic just one of Yecke's shortcomings

Published February 14, 2004
Star Tribune

It would be tedious, and perhaps pointless, to try to refute the substance of Cheri Pierson Yecke's commentary (Jan. 18) on cooperative learning. But it is worth pointing out her habits of thought and argument, because these are what make her unfit to lead Minnesota's schools.

For one thing, Yecke uses false logic. Her essay opens, for example, by saying, "Whether (cooperative learning) is a tool that helps students learn, or whether it is being used in ways that are a detriment to student learning, is a subject of debate."

But there is no debate. The two ideas she offers are not opposed to each other. The vast preponderance of the scholarly evidence, collected over many years, demonstrates that cooperative learning is indeed a useful teaching tool. And it is also undoubtedly true that the tool is not always properly used.

Everything Commissioner Yecke says after this opening gambit is based on the unstated and undemonstrated proposition that, in practice, cooperative learning is always, or nearly always, used improperly. I know of no evidence to support this view.

She employs, for another thing, false definitions. For example, Yecke defines "social loafing" as the theory that "many individuals in groups are unwilling to evenly distribute the workload in a group project, choosing instead to let others do the work for them." The theory actually proposes the opposite: In groups given a straightforward task -- pulling on a rope, say -- people give less than their best effort, choosing, instead, to distribute the work evenly.

And the research on this idea suggests that the more complex the task gets, and the more engaged participants are in completing it, the better the group performs. In fact, such a group is likely to outdo any individual performance.

Another tactic that Yecke uses is to exaggerate the nature of the work she cites in defense of her own views. In her commentary piece, for example, she describes Marian Williams as having done "extensive studies on the impact of cooperative learning groups and high ability students."

In fact, Williams has done a couple of opinion surveys, which show that many students identified as gifted don't like doing group work with students they perceive as less able than themselves.

Still another of Yecke's tactics is to make sweeping generalizations from exceedingly limited bits of circumstantial evidence. So, for example, she attributes to all students the views of the single student she quotes. And the student she quotes happens, although she doesn't reveal this, to be her own daughter.

Yecke is also fond of the misleadingly selective quotation. For example, she claims that overuse of cooperative learning, according to the 2000 National Assessment of Education Progress, has resulted in poorer performances in math. This is based, she says, on statistics from students in grades 4 and 8.

What the statistics actually show is that students who did weekly group work in math got exactly the same test scores as students who did no group work. Students who did daily group work performed slightly less well.

This was not, the assessment suggests, because of the group work but because, in the lower grades, students also need a good deal of textbook work. And, the assessment goes on to point out -- something Yecke neglects to mention -- that by grade 12, students doing group work clearly outperform those who aren't doing it.

"Should cooperative learning be eliminated?" Yecke asks. "No," she answers, "but neither should it be used indiscriminately as the 'be-all' and 'end-all' of educational strategies."

But she offers no reason for believing that cooperative learning is being used in this way. In fact, the same math assessment that she cites as support for her views found that 44 percent of eighth-graders did no group work, or almost none, and that only 19 percent of students did such work on more than a weekly basis.

In her recent book, on the other hand, Yecke attributes "the rising tide of mediocrity in America's middle schools," the "war against excellence" in American education, to three causes: curricula without enough rigor, lack of ability grouping, and cooperative education.

She goes so far in the book as to suggest that cooperative education is not only a bad teaching strategy, but a sinister one, a plot by leftist activists to introduce into our schools such radical and inappropriate ideas as equality of opportunity. (Her political views are somewhere to the right of Rush Limbaugh's.)

Which is Yecke's real view about cooperative education? It depends, apparently, on which audience she thinks she's speaking to.

Paul Gruchow, a writer living in Duluth, has taught at several Minnesota colleges.