Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Evidence Problem--What Really Impedes True Education Reform

There seems to be an increasing sense of urgency with regard to education in this nation.  Urgency, however, produces three possible responses: Panic and react quickly, determine the sources of the problem, or be apathetic and do nothing.

Too often, panic is the avenue of choice, and it leads to disastrous policies that cost billions and cause little to no improvement in student achievement.

Why do we panic?  The primary reason is because of who does the panicking.  While many groups get blamed for education’s failings, one group too often escapes mention. This one has the most influence on the system, and possibly the least knowledge about its challenges.  High influence plus low knowledge equals panicked responses expected to produce impossible results.

This group is the cadre of Overseers and Influencers (OAI), which includes politicians, wealthy corporations, and advocacy groups.  I’ve previously labeled them the PeWKoB, for People who Know Better.  (Read the post “The Money Issue” for more details)

The common denominator among the OAI is that they do not practice what they demand of everyone else in education–accountability.  They require little evidence to implement their own baseless beliefs.

Take the proposal in here in Washington state to cut $95 million from schools based on attendance.  You read that right: cut funding to schools with bad attendance.  This idea was really proposed, and by the state legislature. 

Yes, this got shot down after everyone realized its absurdity.  But the fact it was even proposed speaks volumes of how far removed the OAI sit from the challenges of education.  Senator Ed Murray’s justification: “We believe it’s one way to get...school districts to get kids and keep them in their classrooms.”  From Senator Joseph Zarelli in an online chat: “Maybe this will encourage greater focus on why kids are not in school.”

How, exactly, are we supposed to “get” kids into their classrooms, senators?

“Maybe” and “We believe” aren’t very solid bases on which to propose multi-million dollar policies.  If you or I get ideas in the bathtub, they usually stay there.  When an OAI gets one, we might pay for it for decades.

Listen to the former governor of Maine explain in a Times article why every kindergartner should receive a free iPad: “Anything that holds the attention of pupils will help in the learning process.”  Anything?  How does he know this?  Why don’t we just dress teachers up like clowns?

Consider some demands placed upon teachers by the OAI:

Want new textbooks?  First you must demonstrate which ones are “research-based.”  You say your students are learning?  Show us the tests that prove it.  Anecdotes not allowed.

My question: How come the OAI don’t need evidence for their ideas?  

Show us evidence that all these standardized tests make a smidgen of difference.  What would happen if we just abandoned them, saving the billions we currently send to the testing industry?  The OAI consider these tests a necessity.  But are they?

Show us evidence that requiring teachers to spend gobs of money getting re-certified after just five years has any effect on student achievement.  What if all this work is a total waste of time and money?

Show us evidence that we need to teach students across the district/state/nation/world the same topics at the same time from the same books.  Curriculum alignment is hailed as the latest answer.  But is there any solid evidence it even matters?  What is so horrifying about schools using different textbooks?

So while teachers are pressured, burdened, and charged with all kinds of evidence-based requirements just to do their jobs, the policy and agenda-setters need only gut feelings and inspiration.

Perhaps this is why our system costs so much yet seems to improve so little.  But do I have any evidence for this?  I’ve got as much as they do.

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