Learning From Failure

Most innovations fail. And like NPR Planet Money's Adam Davidson explains, "life span of innovations has never shorter, meaning that failure happens more quickly." So it is not too soon to start to contemplate of the obituaries of the contemporary school reform movement.

Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban's first draft of the history of "thirty years of market-driven and donor-supported school reform" is particularly prescient. Although vestiges of reform "will be quietly incorporated into public schooling," Cuban guesses that "contemporary policymakers and philanthropists who have invested much time, energy, and monies into these market-driven reforms ... will not break out the champagne for these remnants."

He concludes reforms such as "evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, ending tenure and seniority, calling principals CEOs, and children learning to code will be like tissue-paper reforms of the past (e.g., zero-based budgeting, right- and left-brain teaching) that have been crumpled up and tossed away."

I read Cuban as saying that 1990s-type reforms were not doomed. Standards-based reforms produced incremental gains, and, back then, charters had potential as laboratories for experimentation. Reformers were too impatient, however, demanding "transformational" change. They doubled down on standardized test-driven, competition-driven policies that are deserving of their place in the ash can of history.

Reformers should have listened to Cuban and other historians of education. Now, they have a second chance to reflect on where they went wrong. The New York Times Magazine special edition, "Failure," (and its contribution by Davidson) could help accountability-driven reformers transition from their simplistic test, sort, and punish mandates to a science-based, humanistic reform era.

Failure is not shameful. For instance, the most-heralded innovations of the 1990s have largely failed to live up to their hype. Big Data did not put an end to the ups and downs of business cycles. The Human Genome Project has not yet yielded the health benefits it promised. As Kemia Malekvilibro explains, DNA sequencing's promise of a "golden road to pharmaceutical riches as target-based drug discovery has often proved to be more of a garden path."

So data-driven school reformers were not alone in discovering that the world is far more complex than they believed. But they have followed a path that is very different from that of the other innovators described by Davidson, Malekvilibro, and other contributors to The New York Times' "Failure" edition. The special issue is full of innovators who have acknowledged their initial failure, formulated new hypotheses, and started tinkering their way to success. Education reform seems to be the only innovation described in the Times where its true believers have refused to learn from their defeats.

Clearly, school reformers now need to engage in more old-fashioned inductive research. They must start looking at the actual phenomenon they seek to change and ask better questions. But, above all, they need to look in the mirror. Top-down school reformers need to face up to the way that their hubris wrecked their sincere efforts to improve schools.

Adam Davidson concludes his analysis of innovation with the reminder that its "enemy is fear of failure." School reformers need to come to grips with the atmosphere of fear they created in our schools. They gambled that high-stakes testing and extreme competition between schools would not spread a debilitating panic throughout public education. It is time for them to admit that their wager did not pay off.