I want to put forward three questions for education policy. I think many current discussions will prove to be ones in which at least one of the three questions is not answered in advance, with the result that people are talking more loudly, but past each other.
We have a common interest. America will be a stronger country if its young people are better educated. Indeed, if we can’t agree that we want our young people to be better educated, there’s not much point in debating education policy. This brings us to the first question.
1) What is a better K-12 education?
‘Better’ suggests more of something—more quantity, more quality—but individuals have their own views. We all have had the experience of being educated, and the experience left an imprint on our view of what education should be. Everyone can weigh in, which is not the case for, say, health care or policing.
Supporters of recent reforms want to continue using test scores as proxies of ‘better.’ They acknowledge that tests have limits, that focusing on reading and math may lead to narrowing curriculum and teaching approaches, might pressure teachers and schools, might reduce teacher morale, and so on. But they see recent reforms as moving education to the present, to a state of practice that is modern, to an era when results are counted.
Critics of recent reforms suggest that a ‘better’ education is one that used to happen. The focus on tests has prevented teachers from doing their best work, impaired their morale, and reduced the likelihood that talented young people will choose to become teachers. The critics are harkening back to a halcyon period when education was great. Did it exist? They frame ‘better’ as something that is and perhaps cannot be measured by tests. They never say what that is, just that if it’s measured by a test, that’s not what they meant. They apply the label ‘corporate reform’ but rarely define it, implying that ideas shared with business or promoted by business undermine education. ‘Teaching is not a business,’ writes one, seemingly unaware that the expression is a non sequiter. Teaching is an important activity within the education business, like surgery and nursing are important activities within the health-care business.
Discussing what is a ‘better’ education will be useful in the debate. It’s the objective. With the objective in hand, we can debate means.
2) What is the evidence about what works in education and what doesn’t?
The debate needs to agree on what is acceptable evidence. For example, maybe a teacher writes that in the old days her classroom was more interesting and pleasant until test scores became a focus and spoiled it. Is this evidence? Some might think the teacher’s testimonial is the best kind of evidence, coming as it does from someone at the front lines. Others might think an anecdote proves nothing, and maybe the teacher’s classroom now is exactly what it was then.
Here, the methods of science can help. In particular, we want evidence that can be verified and replicated.
In the example of the teacher, verifying means there are records that her classroom indeed was more interesting. Maybe the school’s principal or a supervisor recorded observations of the teacher’s classroom, or some of the instruction has been recorded on video. Looking at that evidence might suggest the classroom is less interesting. Memories are unreliable, as police have long known about eyewitness reports, and memories coupled with motivation are especially unreliable.
Replication in a social setting means the finding has been seen more than once. (In a scientific setting, replication means the finding can be generated again, such as another experiment that yields the same result.) We want more than one teacher to report that classrooms have become less interesting. We want many teachers to report it, and, even better, we want more than one study of teachers to report it.
Applying these principles helps separate evidence from anecdotes. Applying these principles also means excluding from discussion any sentence that begins ‘Research shows that…’ and that ends without citing the research supposedly showing that. So-called ‘findings’ like this cannot be verified.
We need to debate and agree about what should be accepted as evidence. If we cannot agree about acceptable evidence, different sides will put forward findings, other sides will discount them, and nothing will happen. If we can agree on acceptable evidence, what works and doesn’t work in education will be clearer.
3) Who is responsible for education?
Imagine a debate about who is responsible for the quality of asparagus. Is it growers? Or is it consumers? Economists will say growers are suppliers and consumers are demanders. The two share responsibility for a product because they interact within a market that determines its price and quantity.
Dry and bloodless as it sounds, the market metaphor works for education too. Teachers and schools are suppliers, and parents and communities are demanders. Certainly, education is an unusual market. By law, school districts are sole providers of public education within their geographic areas, and are funded primarily through taxes. But these are nuances. It’s a market. If parents want to pay little for public education but want their child to have an experience like they would get at a pricey private school, they will be disappointed. Markets don’t work this way. If educators want parents to pay more for education but cannot make a case why the added resources will lead to ‘better’ education, they will be disappointed. Markets don’t work this way.
Answers to this question will take the form of processes for deliberation and debate in which everyone acknowledges they have skin in the game and working together is essential.
The eminent physicist Richard Feynman is quoted by Charles Mann as saying that at the edge of knowledge, unclear and mutually contradictory ideas vie for attention. So he tried to figure out what would take him forward no matter which theory turned out to be correct.
This wisdom seems apt for education policy, where many unclear and mutually contradictory ideas vie for attention. The three questions are a way to move us forward. Debates are not likely to be productive without even tentative answers to the three questions.