Education--It's Complicated

I’ve been struck lately by the similarities between politics and education reform. Some politicians claim to have simple solutions to incredibly complex problems. Declining healthcare? A loss of manufacturing? Global terrorism? They claim they know how to solve them all. In today’s politics, boastfulness is the mark of political strength; humility is viewed as weakness. No issue is too complex that it can’t be summarized in a few tweets.

Education reform is remarkably similar. Poor schools? Offer school choice and the market will improve them. Poor teachers? Get rid of unions and fire teachers; those who remain will be better. Poor students? All we need are high expectations and students will surely live up to them. The boasts of expert policy makers and naïve pundits are every bit as certain as those of politicians. They too tweet their wisdom.

That education’s problems are complex, long-standing, and systemic, and therefore unlikely to yield to simple solutions, is dismissed as defeatist. So is the observation that these apparently simple “solutions” frequently have unforeseen (and disastrous) consequences elsewhere in the system. As in politics, humility is interpreted as weakness in education reform.

This tendency to simplify has become intrinsic to the public conversation about education. We have implicitly redefined education’s goal to be higher test scores (usually abbreviated as “student achievement”), which is extraordinarily simple. But even test scores are not simple enough. We no longer report the scores themselves but rather divide students into categories (Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or Below-Basic) and give the percentage in each. In spite of the deficiencies of such reporting (Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 181), this has become nearly universal.

Standards play a critical role in education. They are meant to describe the skills, knowledge, and understanding, one wants students to master, and they provide a scaffold on which a curriculum is built. Standards are not necessarily higher or lower, just like framings for houses can differ without being better or worse. The Common Core Standards were meant to provide a scaffold for all grades, K-12, providing “coherence”—so high school teachers would know what students learned in elementary, elementary teachers know what students faced in middle, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, the Common Core Standards got hijacked, however. The meaning of the Standards was simplified to the vernacular—something like grading eggs or slabs of beef—and the adjective “higher” was always attached. Standards became merely a way to judge (simple) rather than to scaffold (complex).

The original purpose of charter schools was to experiment with new ways to organize and operate schools. But experiments can be complicated, especially in education, and soon charters became something else—simple replacements for traditional schools. The replacements might be different—non-union, longer hours, more rules—but they were no longer thought of as experiments. This is made clear by recent public discussions in which charters and vouchers are merged into a single idea, which is roughly “replace public schools.”

We have become fixated on the results of international tests, such as TIMSS or PISA. When results are announced, we see lists of countries, ranked by the average score for each. Pundits and politicians wring their hands because we are 23rd or 36th or below average. The intricacies of such tests are never mentioned. Which students were tested and how were they selected? How do the tests align with the country’s curriculum? Were there exceptional circumstances in some countries? We learn none of this—only the country’s rank, as if nations were sports teams and only the score mattered.

Perhaps education research is the ultimate victim of this craze to make everything simple. Some people believe the opposite—that huge amounts of data and sophisticated statistics make modern research more complex, more scientific. But gathering data and feeding them into a statistics package is simple stuff. It is profoundly unsophisticated and intellectually shallow. Education research used to include philosophy, psychology, and history. It used to have depth and gravitas. It was unthinkable that research could be done by economists feeding numbers into computers, rather than by practicing educators and education experts. No longer.

Education is not only complicated but nuanced as well. Tests are lousy goals, but they are indispensable tools. The Common Core Standards were hijacked, but coherence is a sensible (indeed, an indispensable) concept. Charter schools have been misused, but some charters are first-rate, and we ought to learn from them. International comparisons can be misleading, but they can’t be ignored altogether. And while modern research in education can be infuriatingly shallow, data and statistics have brought us vast new insights. These are complex issues that deserve careful thought and analysis. When it comes to improving education, there are no magic bullets, no simple solutions, even bad ideas contain some wisdom. The big problems of education are messy, with uncertain answers to ambiguous questions.

The lesson from all this is straight-forward: Stop boasting, stop tweeting, stop trying to make everything simple. Work together to find solutions. Practice humility—a strength, not a weakness. In education, unlike in politics, recognizing that things are complicated is crucial to finding solutions that are real.

Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea in politics too.

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