The mess that is education policy

What makes reading about K-12 education so frustrating to me as a layperson is that you hear such conflicting accounts about what works and what doesn’t.  As I’ve been studying up on the current evidence about some of the issues confronting Detroit Public Schools, I keep running into seemingly contradictory claims.

Case in point:  While Ann Crowley celebrates the flexibility she and her colleagues at Palmer Park Academy have in changing their instructional plans, Jonathan Cohn describes how Durant Tuuri Mott Elementary, a high-achieving school in Flint, has thrived on exactly the opposite approach:

(A)t the district level… administrators have made a series of key changes, most important among them the adoption of a new, more rigid curriculum. Why would a more rigid curriculum be good? Because in a community like Flint, volatile economic and family circumstances frequently force children to change schools in the middle of the school year, sometimes more than once. The new curriculum means those students can pick up at the new school right where they left off at the old one.

When us laypeople juxtapose two stories like these, their authors each telling stories completely at odds, can educators blame us for reading this as a discipline in chaos?

Coming from the health sciences,  I am astonished by the apparent anarchy in the U.S. K-12 education field.  In the health sciences, there is a rigorous hierarchy of evidence, with a continually growing base of systematic reviews and meta-analyses summarizing knowledge on thousands of topics, relatively easily retrieved through a couple of centralized and well-curated bibliographic databases.  These are supplemented by another rich layer of guidelines and algorithms helping clinicians to determine how and when to apply that evidence to specific cases.

Education research seems to me to be vastly under-resourced in comparison.  Consensus in the education research community, where it exists, does not seem to consistently be translated into national and state standards, and the data collection likewise is not as robust as it could be.  In health care, the amount of resources expended on a national level to gathering data seems exponentially greater.  No wonder there is so much debate.

That leaves the rest of us shouting at one another because, to us at least, there simply doesn’t seem to be much of an evidence base.  American policymakers make it much, much worse by ignoring evidence, and the media compounds it by lazy and sensationalist reporting.  They are even more allergic to the application of scientific evidence to the education field than they are to medicine, climate change, or even economics.  No one bothers to consult the education literature; legislators, rule-makers, voters and reporters seem already to know what they want to do, whether it is supported by empirical data or not.

To be fair, mainstream health sciences reporting is also frustrating to the lay reader, as most health journalists are ignorant of how to properly appraise a research study.  All too frequently, they focus their reporting on the most sensationalist studies without any regard for methodological quality, or any attempt to convey for the reader the level of bias.  The same problem — lazy journalism, encouraged and exacerbated by Gannett-style management — leaves lay readers out in the cold, whether the topic is medicine, politics, or the education of our own children.

Another case in point:  the tremendous celebrity Diane Ravitch has garnered since she decided a few years ago to reverse her previous positions on school reform.  Ravitch is unquestionably knowledgeable, with a great deal of experience and expertise. But she has also become a reflexive crank, completely dismissing any question about what the rest of us know from personal experience:  some teachers suck, and that that hurts students.  She responds to the slightest questioning of the pre-NCLB status quo as a direct attack on teachers.  She talks as if both of our two major governing parties shared her belief in the solutions to reducing poverty or inequality (hint: at least one of them doesn’t), and as if taxpayers have absolutely no right to expect some sort of measurable results from the public education they fund.  While I agree with Ravitch broadly on a number of points — mainly that poverty is THE major cause of poor student achievement, and that the Republican Party is trying to starve public education — the fact remains that she crowds out media coverage of more balanced and thoughtful perspectives on reform.  She may be the opposite of Michelle Rhee in terms of her beliefs, but they are 100% the same when it comes to belligerent cross-talk.  And the media loves it, because it allows them to reduce the conversation to a Fox News-style screaming match.

(Yes, I acknowledge the irony of a blogger devoting a paragraph to Ravitch while complaining about how much oxygen the media give her.)

One of the few beliefs that do seem to be widely accepted is that your kids will score better if they are surrounded by other rich kids with educated parents, which is why upper class and middle class parents are busy keeping their local school districts as exclusive as possible, and when that fails, moving their kids into the most exclusive private schools they can afford.  The rest of parents still have no idea what to do.  Many of them still don’t know or care enough about education to bother.  For those that do care, we can’t blame them, since even the education community and policymakers can’t seem to agree on a game plan to move forward.

As long as this persists, I simply do not know how education is ever not going to be stratified by race.  There is not a single country on earth that has had to contend with the heterogeneity of our population and been able to effectively equalize attainment.  I despair.


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