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Dean's Corner: Three Wishes For 2012

Posted by Bank Street on January 19, 2012

Dean Jon Snyder

In the event that the turning of a calendar year is like an Aladdin's lamp and I am entitled to three wishes, here are three wishes for educational policy in 2012 (and no, the first one is NOT the wish for three more wishes).

Wish #1

I wish that educational policy would reflect that public education is a social benefit, not solely a product for an individual to buy.

Human capital is the "stock" of knowledge, skills, and capacities that relates to an individual's relative productivity in society. Social capital refers to the networks and social relationships that people build to develop collective productivity in society. Social capital, when developed equitably, has been seen as a foundation of democracy by such scholars as de Tocqueville, Burke, and Dewey. Yet social capital, when developed inequitably, can perpetuate societal disparity and disaffection. Education can be a strong democratizing force through the development and equitable transfer of social capital.

In the United States, recent educational reform has been driven by a human capital perspective: education is a product for individuals to buy/consume, and educational change is brought about by the reward or punishment of individual teachers. The countries that outperform the United States in educational attainment use a social capital approach: education is a collective benefit/necessity, and educational change is brought about by increasing the social capital of professional expertise at the school and district level.

Michael Fullan, a leading international scholar on educational change, explains this and related issues in a brief and cogent analysis of successful and unsuccessful policy "drivers" of educational improvement (PDF). In this paper, Fullan lays out the theoretical and empirical reasons why we can expect to see the current approach to educational reform in this country continue to fail to meet its aims without making fundamental changes in how we conceive of education and educational change.

Wish #2

I wish that the current administration would desire for all children that which President Obama desires for his children.

A newspaper article by Erica Werner of the Associated Press on March 28, 2011, reports on comments that President Obama made regarding the use of standardized tests in the education of his children. He says that students should take fewer standardized tests and school performance should be measured in ways above and beyond just exam results.

"Too often," he is quoted as saying, "what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools." He further suggests that policymakers should find a test that "everybody agrees makes sense" and administer it in less pressure-packed atmospheres, potentially every few years instead of annually—an occasional administration to establish a baseline for use down the road in programmatic appraisals.

The President continues,

One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you're not learning about the world, you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that's not going to make education interesting. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in.

He uses his own children's experience as an example of what he is talking about, noting that Sasha, 9, and Malia, 12, "recently took a standardized test that didn't require advance preparation. Instead, he said, it was just used as a tool to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses."

I couldn't agree with the President more. Unfortunately the policies and the financial expenditures of his administration are doing exactly the opposite—creating more tests to be given more often and with teacher employment decisions based on the results of those tests. In order to evaluate all teachers on test results, the tests will need to be administered in all the subjects that are taught in school. Currently approximately two-thirds of teachers do not teach in subjects that have tests that can be used in the prescribed ways to evaluate teachers. Simple math suggests that means a two-thirds increase in tests to provide the data needed to evaluate teachers in this matter. Couple this increase with teacher employment based on the results of those tests and the likely outcome is precisely that which the President railed against in his speech.

Wish #3

I wish that educational policy makers would jettison the chimerical certainty of numbers and embrace the nuanced wonderfulness of human growth and development.

I love research studies using large scale data sets. They provide very useful information for research and programmatic interpretations and decisions. They cannot and do not, however, provide either CERTAINTY or particularly useful information regarding decisions about individual human beings (children or adults). Correlations in large scale data sets cannot provide, with any level of precision or accuracy, certainty in individual cases. As Bruce Baker notes,

Therein exists one of the major fallacies moving from large scale econometric analysis to micro level human resource management. (School Finance 101, 1/7/12)

Using the recent study by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff (PDF) as a case in point, Baker explains why it adds to the evidence that teachers matter but does not help figure out how to improve teaching quality. "Most importantly, the results do not really speak directly to how teacher quality is best improved except insofar as it adds to the body of compelling evidence that teachers are important and that successful methods for improving teacher quality—if and when they are identified and implemented—could yield benefits for a broad range of outcomes over the long-term."

In fact, social science research numbers by themselves do not provide any answers whatsoever. The interpretations of those numbers (often times guided by one's preexisting dispositions) determine the recommendations derived from those numbers. Numbers do not make sense, people make sense of numbers.

Finally, the evidence is clear, even by their own metrics: slavish devotion to the kind of quantification provided by standardized tests (with all of their strengths and their limitations) does not enhance the growth and development of our youth. Michael Winerip documents the failed irrationality of blind faith in, what he calls, "scientific exactitude" (New York Times, December 18, 2011). He opens his article, tongue planted firmly in cheek, with,

In the last decade, we have emerged from the Education Stone Age. No longer must we rely on primitive tools like teachers and principals to assess children's academic progress. Thanks to the best education minds in Washington, Albany and Lower Manhattan, we now have finely calibrated state tests aligned with the highest academic standards.

Why these three wishes?

They represent three of my "best bets" for changes that can alter the current well-intentioned, but failing, approach to public education policy and set us on a direction that leads to the education all our children deserve and that the well-being of our communities require.