How to Be Halfway Intelligent About School Reform

You know the line: you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. The opinions about school reform are all over the map. The real problem with school reform is that there are too many issues and too many facts. Some are “true facts” while some are suspicious facts.School reform has been a major issue since that landmark 1983 policy report by Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation on the high school and secondary education in America back in 1983. For many of us, that was an eye-opener. School issues have become more complex since then—and also more numerous. Easily, 30 to 40 major issues impinge on school reform, varying from teacher education and quality to funding, global competition, alternative education forms and nonschool factors like poverty and parent illiteracy.Thankfully, we know a lot more about problem solving and decision making today than in the 1980’s. Grasp the relevant facts from the experts, figure out whether the people making recommendations are intentionally clouding the facts, and finally, apply our experience knowledge, and reasoning to decide whether recommendations are right. Sounds easy, eh? Not so. The process is fraught with potential for distortions in judgment that result from biases at every stage of the process.High-stakes decisions, when the issues are numerous and complex, do not respond to a few simple solutions. There is no silver bullet. Solutions will have to be found piecemeal. And for a decent batting average, we’ll have to pilot them. The Gates Foundation has been doing just that. They’ve learned that a lot doesn’t work. Not surprisingly, many people believe the research failures indicate that Gates is wasting his money. That’s a dumb response. Any research scientist will tell you that learning what doesn’t work is just as valuable as learning what does work. There are always a finite number of potential solutions. For research to be successful, usually you’ll have to go through most of the options to find some positive results. You may also need to completely reframe the problem several different times.Since reforms will need a lot of popular support, we’re all going to have to have a basic understanding of the issues—not just flagrant opinions. Which brings me to my blog’s question: How can you begin to be halfway intelligent about school reform? Here’s a step in the right direction.Though I’m not at all impressed by Steve Brill’s, Class Warfare, Sara Mosle’s review of the book in Sunday’s NYTimes Books is highly illuminating. No, her review is a fabulous take on the majority of the issues school reform faces. Those two-and-one-half pages will give you more insight into our problem than three or four books. The review, Steve Brill’s Report Card on School Reform, frames the issue superbly. Furthermore, the research Mosle brings to the review is impeccable.Brill, a Yale lawyer, mounts a zealous case against teachers’ unions. As Mosle writes, at the heart of his book is a belief that “truly effective teaching” can “overcome student indifference, parental disengagement and poverty.” Brill cites policy advocates and research for his case.But, Mosle reminds us, Brill . . . glosses over an important qualifier to such research. Teacher quality may be the most important variable within schools, but mountains of data, going back decades, demonstrates that most of the variation in student performance is explained by nonschool factors: not just poverty, but also literacy (and whether parents read to their children), student health, frequent relocations, crime-related stress and the like.Mosle’s conclusion is worth remembering: Brill likens the battle over the nation’s schools to “warfare,” but the better analogy may be to the war on cancer. For years, scientists hoped a magic pill would cure this ravaging disease. But increasingly, doctors have recognized that they will have to fight a multifronted war, as cancers (like failing schools) aren’t all alike. Each comes with its own complex etiology. Improving teacher quality and working to create better schools, like charters, are part of the arsenal. But such efforts, alone, are unlikely to boost long-term survival rates without a continual, dispassionate look at the incoming data, no matter how counterintuitive, and a willingness to revise tactics midtreatment as we pursue multiple paths in a race for the cure. Although Brill doesn’t say so until the book’s last few pages, he finally acknowledges just how much we still have to learn. Mosle’s analogy puts school reform into a highly appropriate focus, giving us a realistic perspective of the difficulties we face. It challenges the easy opinions and so-called facts that glide from talk radio and cable. 
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