Bad Man v. Good Woman

My friend Jal Mehta writes a provocative column in EdWeek:

It's a principle of jurisprudence, he explained, invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes that says that when making policy we should always be cognizant of the "bad man." The bad man is the man who always seeks to circumvent the policymakers' intent, looking for loopholes or other ways around the law. A good policy, the law professor averred, seeks to anticipate what the "bad man" might do, and create additional regulations that would cover any contingency he might seek to exploit.

While there are circumstances in which the bad man theory is appropriate (financial regulation comes to mind), as a theory of educational improvement today I think it is deeply flawed for at least 3 major reasons:

1) It assumes that our major problem is controlling bad actors when the major challenge is sustaining the motivation and effort of good people;

2) It tends to reinforce the destructive compliance mentality which gives states and districts a bad name;

3) It assumes that people far from students are wiser and more able to guide their lives for the better than the people they see everyday.

To be fair, the bad man theory in education is well-intentioned--it stems from a civil rights rationale, in which schools (and many other institutions in society) could not be trusted to serve the basic rights of its students. At a time, not that long ago, when handicapped students were warehoused rather than put with mainstream students, when schools were refusing court ordered integration, or when students for whom English was a second language had no rights, then it made sense for the state and federal government to use their full powers to protect student rights by utilizing the bad man doctrine.

But those are not the problems that face us today.

Read the whole thing here. 

Jal goes on to argue:

To achieve these ends would require a different way of treating teachers--fundamentally as people who are worthy of respect and whose intrinsic motivation needs to be tapped--call it the "good woman" theory of education reform.

Things don't look good for the good woman agenda at the moment. In particular, the emphasis on teacher evaluation as a major driver of reform makes a fundamental error by organizing a policy agenda around pushing out a small number of bad performers when the real challenge is improving the skills and expertise of the vast majority of teachers who are not going to be fired. The modal teacher had 15 years experience in 1987-88; in contrast, the modal teacher in 2007-08 was in her first year. The reasons for this are complex, but it seems reasonable to suspect that policies organized around the bad man theory are one culprit.

Just to be clear, organizing around a "good woman" theory of action isn't the same as saying that if we just trusted teachers everything would be hunky-dory.

I think Jal's created a terrific idea to organize around.

1. I agree that answering "How to put the typical teacher in a high-poverty school in a position to succeed" is a critical problem.  We actually don't have a ton of great answers.  I don't think it's far less about "respect" than about actually having practical techniques that work in real life.   That's at the core of Match Education itself. 

2. Very small point.  Opening of our grad school in 2012.  Deb Ball, dean of UMich Ed School, spoke.  She mentioned that "modal teacher" study.  A brilliant non-educator in the audience perked up.  He went home, read the study itself, and found some big methodology problems!  I never had the chance to follow up and ask the professor, who is at Penn.  But I thought it was at least 40% likely that the study was wrong. 

3. Does evaluating a teacher mean disrespecting a teacher?  I think Bill Gates makes a good argument: no. 

4. This idea could apply not just to teacher, but to charter schools as a whole.  There are several rationales to block charters.  One of them is "Bad Charter Could Open."  This has certainly happened!  Charter advocates could say "Yes, but they get closed," and a rejoinder might be "Not often enough, and not quickly enough."  To me that cleaves the normal ed reform divides: few people consistently want Bad Man or Good Woman.  Instead, they want some of each, targeted at the people or institutions they see as the problem. 

5. Bonus - is Jal not just a surprised Celtics fan (like me, about their non-horrible start to the season), but a closet advocate of vouchers?

I don't think so but if he's not careful he'll get himself in "trouble" with his line:

It assumes that people far from students are wiser and more able to guide their lives for the better than the people they see everyday.

I know Jal means "let teachers decide things."  But couldn't it mean "let parents decide things"?  Paging Jay Greene!