Should we shoot for the moon, or aim for improvement?

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A few weeks ago, I read a post that is still sticking in my craw.

Shooting Bottle Rockets at the Moon: Overcoming the Legacy of Incremental Education Reform

The author, Thomas Kane, argues that we need to stop tinkering and institute more drastic reforms in order to catch up to the highest-performing countries. He has written and researched extensively on teacher evaluation systems, so his voice is an important and informed one.

But I disagree with nearly everything he said.

I found only one area of agreement:  “In education…we do not pause long enough to consult the evidence on expected effect sizes and assemble a list of reforms that could plausibly succeed in achieving our ambitious goals.” Most of us can probably agree that education reformers do not pay enough attention to the relevant evidence, and I think this lack of attention extends beyond the expected effect sizes into things such as the limitations of the evidence base, the generalizability of the findings, and the extent of contradictory evidence.

But the parts that are sticking in my craw are pretty much everything else.

I’ll start with the title and the underlying premise. Kane argues that we have a “legacy of incremental education reform” that needs to be “overcome.” As a classroom teacher for nine years and a researcher and policy analyst for seven more, I nearly choked on reading that headline and I still can’t get over it. What legacy is he talking about? When I was young, education reform lurched from one end of the pendulum to the other, from whole language to phonics, from new math to back to basics, with lots of debate and idoelogical rancor in between. As I got older, education reform shifted to lofty platitudes with few specifics. Remember Goals 2000? That was the plan that basically said we’re going to fix everything about education by the year 2000. That was followed by No Child Left Behind, then Race to the Top. Do those sound incremental? Currently, our high-profile reform efforts center on the Common Core. Overall, I think the Common Core is a positive step to move toward deeper conceptual development, but it’s hard to argue that overhauling the standards, curricula, and assessments of 44 states within the space of a couple of years is “incremental” change. It seems much closer to the truth to suggest that we are rushing things just a bit and might want to consider “pausing” enough to move at a more incremental pace in order to implement the Common Core more carefully.

Turns out that Kane is talking about reforms such as “better professional development for teachers, higher teacher salaries, incrementally smaller class sizes, better facilities, stronger broad-band connections for schools, etc.,” But those are hardly our highest profile education reforms.

Second, Kane states that those incremental reforms he mentions aren’t big enough to get us where we need to go, and he then proposes a set of four elements that “could provide the needed thrust.” Two problems with this:

A) It’s not at all clear that those “not-big-enough” reforms that Kane disparages are actually incremental. They are mostly things that we haven’t even tried to do on a large scale. And it’s not even certain that we know how to do them on a large scale. Can anyone point me to an example of a large district or state that has actually implemented “better professional development?”  Does anyone know how to implement better professional development on a large scale? What about $130,000 teacher salaries? If the state of North Dakota, flush with money from natural gas drilling, implemented $150,000 teacher salaries across the board, would anyone call that an “incremental” change? The class size example might even be more pertinent because we had good evidence that lowering class sizes in Tennessee worked, but when that evidence was applied to the Californian context where the policy resulted in hiring many thousands of rookie teachers, the inexperience of all the new teachers appears to have wiped out any benefits that might have been created by the lower class sizes. I don’t think we are in a position to quibble over effect sizes because we are still largely in the dark about the effects themselves.

B) The four “elements” of reform with sufficient “magnitude” and “thrust” are themselves incremental improvements at best. Kane argues that the best of them might produce .045 standard deviations of improvement per year. I don’t buy the evidence for his argument on some of his preferred reforms, but even if he is right, it’s hard to describe .045 standard deviations of improvement as anything more than an “incremental” improvement. Especially when we consider that in the one large random experiment that we have, class size reduction in Tennessee Kindergartens resulted in about 0.2 standard deviations of improvement after one year. For those skimming, that means class size reduction produced an improvement over 4 times larger than the largest of Kane’s preferred reforms. It is important for me to note that this result faded out somewhat over time, additional years of small class sizes did not add to this effect, and these results have not been replicated in other studies. But then, those other studies are widely considered to be less reliable. So the weight of the evidence might suggest that we should drastically lower class sizes in all U.S. Kindergartens.

On to my third big gripe with Mr. Kane. The reforms he proposes are not any bigger in size, nor any better in terms of their evidence base. They’re just more controversial. And that seems to be his true subtext. We can’t be so namby-pamby in education. We gots to start hurting people’s feelings and firing teachers if we want to compete with the Chinese. But of course, the policies he is proposing are controversial for many good reasons, not the least of which is that we really have no idea of what the unintended consequences would be if we were to, say, take his suggestion and not retain (or “fire”) the bottom 25 percent of teachers on value-added measures at tenure time (usually after two to three years of teaching). We have a difficult time recruiting top-notch students into teaching as it is. Will anyone with a modicum of understanding of statistics choose to enter a job knowing that they may be fired after two years based on a measure that has so much noise that a teacher who is rated at the 43rd percentile has a margin of error that ranges from the 15th percentile to the 71st (Corcoran, 2010)?

Another problem with his premise: why should we accept that incremental reform is somehow less than some grandiose promised moon shot? A large part of our ongoing crisis in American education stems from our propensity to lurch from one silver bullet solution to the next without enough focus to actually make any solution workable. Teachers know this. A continual gripe from teachers is how the district has abandoned last year’s pet reform in favor of a new approach that teachers are expected to quickly master with little to know support, all the while knowing that this new approach is almost sure to be forsaken within mere months. Instead, the international evidence suggests that countries such as Japan have achieved long-term, ongoing growth by providing a structure in which teachers work together to create incremental improvements in instruction. These incremental improvements add up to real learning. It’s hard to see what other types of improvements could really be possible in a field as complex as human learning. So I take back my third big gripe with Mr. Kane. Sort of. It’s ok that he didn’t find any bigger-than-incremental reforms to promote. There aren’t any. But it’s not ok for him to pretend that he has found some giant-sized solutions when he really hasn’t.

And, yes, I’ve got more gripes. Such as, why is closing the gap with China a “necessary goal?” If the Chinese are truly improving their education system (which is, by the way highly debatable since there is a lot of evidence that the highly touted results in Shanghai come from only testing a small slice of the best students, but anyway), if China is improving their educational system, we should celebrate that fact and rejoice in the hope that poverty, hunger, and human misery will be substantially reduced. The same is true for the improvement in any country. The growth of other countries is much more likely to lift all of humanity than it is to prove a threat.

We do, however, face real threats. Huge ones. Here are three that spring to mind: Climate change, income inequality, and the rapid pace of technological change that is projected to eliminate 50 percent of all current jobs within a generation. What are we doing to prepare for those threats? Are any of them likely to be met by increasing our PISA scores? Or do we need to begin to focus our educational reform efforts more broadly? Perhaps we should be developing involved citizens who are able to think critically and resolve political disagreements amicably. Or stretching children’s creativity and ability to adapt to new situations?

If those types of reform goals were met, they might very well bring along with them improved PISA scores and a closing of the gap with China. But they might not. And if we were able to end global warming, reduce income inequality, and find new jobs for all of our children, why would we care?

– Kevin

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