Monday, August 22, 2011

Is That A Good Idea?

In education, we continually hear about new ideas, programs, and curricula being implemented across the country.  Eventually, it seems that if these ideas were even half what they promise to be, shouldn’t we need fewer of them?  We need to better evaluate new proposals, and we need the right kind of people doing the evaluating–teachers first, and parents second.

I’d like to use a recent article about voting by mail as an analogy to explore this.

But first, consider a small sample of the questions and comments we hear regularly:

Why don’t schools get better with all the money we give them?
Why can’t they hire better teachers?
Shouldn’t teachers be held accountable just like other jobs?
Who’s to blame for the high dropout rate?

These and other questions have been asked and inadequately answered for decades.  One of the few insightful moments in Waiting for Superman was the montage of successive United States Presidents making declarations and signing bills related to their new education initiatives.  Each time, people clap and new programs were started, and yet the next president makes the same statements and the same promises for their attempt at the newest solution. 

Why don’t their solutions ever seem to work?

Cycle of Stagnation
If we ask the wrong questions, we will continue to produce the wrong answers.  Further, even if we ask the right questions, if the proposed solutions don’t truly address those questions, we’ll keep asking them for another twenty years. 

One of my goals on this blog is to help people begin to shift their thinking about the big topics in education.  Whether it’s merit pay, teacher accountability, the role of unions, the testing industry, the influence of big money, student motivation, parental responsibility, or a host of other topics, the public needs to get a better understanding of how these issues actually play out in schools. 

Otherwise we’ll just keep listening to future presidents trot out their untested, invalid, well-intentioned (perhaps) but hopelessly misguided policy ideas.  It has recently been made official that the No Child Left Behind Act initiative from the Bush administration will be closed down.  They plan to phase it out and replace it with a new one, some version of Race To The Top, no doubt.  And something else will come after that. 

Why don’t these ideas seem to affect the big ticket problems like racial disproportionality, the dropout rate, and stagnant test scores? 

An Analogy–Selling an Idea
So, let’s get back to the vote-by-mail article I referred to above.  Though it is a non-education topic, you will see the similarities between it and the preceding discussion. 

The article from the Seattle Times (Vote By Mail?)  concerns the recent implementation of a county-wide vote-by-mail system.  It used to be that voters could vote at the polls on election day, or they could request absentee ballots.  In other words, voters who wanted to vote by mail could do so, and voters who (like me) prefer to go to the polls could do so as well. 

But then, the powers that be decreed that poll voting, a time-honored process used for centuries in hundreds of nations, was no longer good enough.  So, in 2009, King County voters eliminated all poll voting, and forced everyone into the mail voting system.

The public was sold on vote-by-mail for two primary reasons:
  1. Voting by mail would be much cheaper, because we won’t have to pay all those temporary election workers to run polls that few voters showed up to anyway.  Since many were already voting by mail, this unnecessary expense can be eliminated. 
  2. Voting by mail will increase voter turnout.  Since voting by mail is much “easier,” then naturally, more people will do it, and since voter turnout is really really important no matter how little some people know about the issues or candidates, a mail voting system is preferable.
Now, my bias is obvious, but my point here is not to convince anyone that poll voting should be  re-instituted.  Rather, consider the rationale we were sold for voting by mail:  It will cost less, and more people will vote.

Based on this rationale, the public bought it, and the county implemented it.  But wait.  Here’s some tidbits from the article:
  • “It is interesting to note that voting by mail appears to have made no difference in election turnout.”  Here, the Times is quoting an analyst for the King County Council.  Read on.
  • “The report suggests vote-by-mail did not increase the cost to running a non-presidential election, which has remained around $12 million since 2006.”
So let’s summarize this.  The two primary reasons the public bought into mandatory vote-by-mail have both turned out to be bunk.  It doesn’t cost less, and it didn’t increase turnout. 

Now, how does this relate to education?

Who’s Idea Is It?
Consider again the constant barrage of new “ideas” we hear about.  I’ve written about this extensively.  See again the post about the “PeWKoB” for the influence of Big Money in education.  Read about the charter school delusion, and about the testing industry.  Recall the current obsession with teacher accountability. 

All of these ideas are championed with the support of politicians, corporate elites, and parental advocacy groups.  There are many more ideas at the school level that affect teachers even more directly than these. 

Many of these ideas promise great results, yet these promises are based on nothing.  There is often little substantive data, little quality research, and few specifics of how these new ideas will actually help.  But because someone important thinks the new idea will help, or because it worked in a private school in Lake Wobegon with classes of 15 white kids who are all above average, someone important figures it must also work in every other school in the nation.

So that person writes a feel-good book with an average-looking female teacher on the cover and a mozzarella title like “Bridging the Gap for All Students” in which the vague details about the new idea are presented with bullet points and anecdotes from perfect-sounding classrooms. 

Then a bunch of influential people grab a hold of it, the colleges of education latch on, it bleeds into district administrations, principals’ offices, and professional development programs, and finally down to teachers.

The result? 

Down to the Classrooms
We get told, for example, that we need to put the daily objective on the board every day.  And this is a “research-based” idea that has proven to increase student achievement, so we are requiring all teachers across the district to do it.  We will include this in your evaluations.  This shows students the expectations are high in this class.  It is “best practices,” one of the favorite buzzwords of the education elites. 

I am not making any of this up.  The Seattle district really did try to implement this idea.  We have been told to do this.  And listen to the minutia of silliness: If I write “chemical formulas” on the board, this is not an objective, and doesn’t meet the requirements.  But, if instead I put “write chemical formulas,” it has now been transformed into a real objective.

I really was told this by administration. And they were telling me this because they were “trained” by the district on what constitutes a good objective.  A good objective has to have a verb, see, because then the students will understand that this is what they will be able to do by the end of the period.  It presents it as a goal for them, and thus “raises expectations.”

Now, I’m not saying this is a bad idea.  And I’m not even saying it’s not worth doing.  But things like this get tossed at teachers incessantly, and the thing that’s missing every time is the meat behind the idea.  Do we really believe this idea is going to transform the educational experiences of our students?  Is this the issue preventing some students from maximizing their opportunities in school?  Do we really need to mandate this?

They Have No Evidence
The thing that no one throwing these ideas at us ever acknowledges is that truthfully, they have no clue if this latest gimmick is going to work.  They just read it in a book and it sounded good to them.  This idea has no more merit than any of the many small adjustments teachers make every day. 

The truth is, I already saw the value in putting an agenda of some sort on the board every day, and had already been doing it.  But because my agenda was missing a few verbs, it was no longer good enough. 

When you really start thinking about it, you realize these ideas not only have no evidence to support their merit, but that real evidence of the scientific variety would be impossible to obtain. How would you actually determine the effect of writing a daily objective on student learning?  How are you going to remove all the other variables in a classroom, and do this for every student?  How is this one alteration going to produce measurable changes that we can positively attribute to this one alteration?  You expect me to believe the teacher did everything else the exact same way they always have, and with this one change, we saw student learning measurably improve? 


This kind of hogwash bombards us constantly.

Policy wonks engorge us with new ideas, never give us the additional time needed to incorporate them into the rest of what we do (or take something else away so the net time remains the same), and have no real evidence this new idea will make any difference.

Just like mandatory vote-by-mail, they sell the idea with sound bites, slogans, and the backing of a famous book by a former teacher who taught for two years somewhere.  They convince everyone because it sounds good.  But, just like vote-by-mail, the actual implementation leaves something to be desired.  In the end, nothing of significance changes.  It just adds another layer of requirements and stress for teachers, and robs some people of something they enjoyed doing that worked for them.

It fails to address the real issues behind all the big questions posed at the outset.  But it sells more books and gives the talking heads something to talk about.  They can tell the public about the new initiatives being implemented, and how it’s going to improve student achievement.  Then, a few years later, they’ll say the same things again with a new slate of “research-based” ideas, and teachers will be bombarded with another layer of procedures to incorporate. 

And ten years go by, and the same big questions continue to be asked.  It’s the Cycle of Stagnation.

Be Wary of Ideas
So the next time you hear a policy wonk, politician, school board, or administrator expounding a new idea, take a moment and consider what led up to this moment. 

Is this really a good idea?  Is it really going to make a difference?  It is worth the monetary cost, or the time cost?  Is this helping more than it’s annoying?  Should this be a requirement of everyone, or should it just be one of many suggestions for teachers looking to improve their classes?  If school boards were filled with people who understood this and asked these kinds of questions, a lot of silly ideas would be rejected before they wasted everyone’s time.

People who champion new ideas–big or small–promise a lot.  They promise great results.  But they often have no evidence it will actually produce those results.  They are wishes.  They are hopes.  Often, they are pure fantasies.

And one thing that frustrates teachers is that when we try to propose new ideas, we get told something like, “We need more evidence it will work,” or, “Let’s see the data first.” 

Our ideas, which are often goofy and based on our daily experiences and professional expertise (like disallowing calculators from all elementary math classes–how silly is that?), get discounted by the People who Know Better (PeWKoB), who counter with their own ideas, which are “research-based.”  And if something was “researched,” it must be a good idea, right?

I bet vote-by-mail was researched too.  Oops. 

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