Do We Know, or Not Know, How To Fix This?

Via our friend Norm Atkins, I saw the 11-page text of a speech by John White.  Background here.  White is the head of Louisiana's public schools.  At Match we have a small project down there led by the incomparable Erica Winston, and funded by the good folks of NSNO. 

Saints-Pats Super Bowl on its way, I just feel it.  Winston, I feel a big wager coming on, whether it's with you or your Grandma. 

White writes:

We reformers, no different from anyone else with authority, risk becoming part of the establishment we resist: well funded, doctrinaire, and more focused on policy than action.

I think a lot of reform-minded types are still looking for a larger narrative that they believe in, one which really does result in big change for kids.  So I wondered what White had in mind. 

Second on my list of three: the reform narrative must be refreshed. In our time, we reformers have learned so much about children and the miracle of their development. We have run schools and school districts. We are now parents ourselves, many of us. We are more humble, but we have more tools. And we have the authority to use them to great effect on behalf of our nation’s children.  In the mainstream media, however, we are often crusaders and ideologues.

And all the while, the real establishment bureaucracy sits comfortably behind the walls of the fortress. IDEA and Carl Perkins. Every Title I office in every school board. Our impenetrable schools of education. The cost of higher education. The opaqueness of Head Start. It goes on and on. These establishment bureaucracies run our education system.  But reform leadership has little to say about them. 

Is the issue that many reformers are portrayed as ideologues?  If so, wouldn't that increase if reformers tackle more targets, pick more fights? 

I'm not quibbling -- I genuinely wonder here.  I do think that improved special ed (IDEA), Perkins post secondary grants, Title I, Head Start are needed.  I just don't get the link to storyline -- if you're worried about storyline, seems like the likely new narrative would be "Confident crusaders trying to fix more stuff before they've even fixed the first batch of stuff."  And if expanding the list because it's not okay to focus on age 5 to 18, why not also take on nutrition, parenting, gang violence? 

White continues:

When I talk to teachers, I don’t hear them consumed with the politics of charter schools and unions; more troublingly, they’re often trained on the idea that government does the thinking for them, whether it’s special education process, teacher evaluation data, textbook selection, and so on. The American public education establishment has existed to make rules, to create limits, to hedge against any chance of risk – in a word, to say no. This is not a way to compete when demands are increasing. 

I mostly agree.  I do think many teachers, however, resent the process they're required to go through. 

There is one thing absent in the speech, and in that, I also think he captures something important about reform movement.  There's no role for better understanding how to do school.  That's not a deficit, a concern.  The implication is: we do know what to do. 

I disagree. 

Do we know how to prepare teachers?  How to coach the ones we already have?  To make a single high-poverty district work well?  To use technology such that it drives big gains for kids?  Have we had any curriculum breakthroughs lately?  How to teach grit?  How to use data? 

Speaking personally, I think the answer remains more "No" than "Yes."  Some successes -- hard-won, admirable, important -- at small scale.  And lots and lots of interventions which have not worked at scale, when studied by randomized control trials.  Some of the research is public; some is coming but I've seen it; some will never be seen. 

Many reformers disagree with me.  They believe the answer is more "Yes" than "No."  That we do know what to do.  That politics, mindsets, systems have to change -- but if we can eliminate the friction, we'll solve this thing. 

I don't get it. 

In medicine, you get to do 2 things at the same time.  Bash each other's brains in on the political questions of health care.  And have lots of MIT nerdy types (and don't forget Cornell) actually figuring out how to cure the diseases -- with a lot of cash backing that work -- while the policy and insurance types figure out the systems to deliver the cures. 

And they use tough, honest scorecards when assessing "cures."  There's lots of disease with no progress!  Doesn't mean the MIT nerds trying to discover medicines aren't smart.  Just means: tough puzzle.

In K-12, I think what we don't know massively exceeds what we do know.  But few of our resources go in that direction, into discovery, into finding practical stuff that helps kids and teachers and actually works when you scale it up.  The constituency for this sort of learning approaches zero among reformers and zero among the establishment.  It's not actually zero.  Just close. 

Meanwhile, dear readers, I'm no political genius.  However, I'd say this: if a moderate were looking to run for governor, he or she couldn't do much better than to plagiarize carefully read White's speech.  Check out the whole thing here. 

P.S. To the charter school community of Denver, we love ya but YOU LOSE TWICE

P.P.S. Happy Thanksgiving people. 

P.P.P.S. Hey Dad - weather on Weds supposed to be 50 degrees, so even if it rains, no snow. 

Comments

Great post--and Happy Thanksg

Great post--and Happy Thanksgiving!

While I agree that what we do know is outweighed by what we don't know, I am frustrated by the minimal implementation of our most solid findings. Our MIT nerdy types have found some educational cures--but only a handful of schools and teacher prep programs are paying attention. Basic things like positive behavior support, praising effort, and teaching students how to study should be happening in every school. Fractions should be taught as what they are: numbers--points on a number line--not slices of pizza. One fraction can divide another. What can one slice of pizza do to another? Reading comprehension strategies should not be tossed, but they should get far less class time. Reading comprehension depends on fluent decoding and having relevant knowledge and vocabulary. A strategy like finding the main idea might help a child focus, but it won't cause a breakthrough if the decoding skills and content knowledge aren't there. If you want to teach reading comprehension, teach a full, rich curriculum that teaches students about the world through scientific, historic, and artistic lenses.

In short, I'm all for education reform. And I'm all for starting with widespread implementation of what we already know. Experiments will still need to be done, but that work should come on top of, not instead of, what's already known.

Very thoughtful post

Mike:

Thanks for this very thoughtful post. As a mainstream public school guy, I know lots of people who think of reformers/charter school types as immodest cowboys who make dramatic claims about their successes without the data to back them; your candid admission that there is not much that's been found to work at scale (yet) is welcome. I wonder WHY scale is a problem for reforms that work well in smaller settings. Here are a few hypotheses:
-Personnel matter tremendously in education. How many really dedicated and smart people are there willing to work in schools? Can you scale up without quickly hitting capacity for these folks?
-We have a measurement problem. Other than standardized tests, which measure a few things well, we don't have a good way to quantify educational outcomes across lots of cases. Medical outcomes are much easier to measure.
-Related to "Personnel": organizational culture matters tremendously in education, and is hard to built positively, even across "school systems" like KIPP.

I'd be interested to know what other readers think...

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