The Faith in the Not Seen Evidence For Education Reform

To use a phrase.

One of the most infuriating things regarding education reform has been its ongoing and slow-motion implementation in Massachusetts. Massachusetts, certainly circa 2010, had an educational system worth emulating nationally–something I repeatedly have argued for: adopt the Massachusetts curriculum, don’t go down the charter path, and away we go. Massachusetts isn’t perfect: it could better with English-as-a-second-language students, and the truly gifted and talented (the top one percent) often don’t have advanced offerings. That said, if Massachusetts were a separate nation, it would have one of the best educational systems in the world (and blow Blessed Finland out of the water).

So, of course, given a system that works, we must screw it up with untested education reform. After all, we should strive to make it even better (bettah!). But what if education reform makes things worse? There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that increasing the number of charters, weakening teacher protections, or adopting a new, untested curriculum* will be better. In fact, it might even be harmful–that is, make Massachusetts’ kids less intelligent.

Jersey Jazzman makes a similar point in an excellent post, “The Burden of Reformy Proof” (really, read the whole thing; emphasis original, boldface mine):

In the reformy mind, we must do something — anything — right now to challenge the “status quo,” which has clearly held our children back for so long.

It doesn’t matter how many failed, corrupt charter schools there may be, or how the segregative effects of charter proliferation may be harming children enrolled in pubic schools. All that matters is that some children get higher test scores than we would predict at some charters (even if the explanations are likely found outside reformy data analysis). All other consequences be damned.

It doesn’t matter that vouchers may drain necessary funds from public schools, likely subsidizing children who would have gone to private schools anyway. It doesn’t matter that test-based teacher evaluations may narrow the curriculum and demoralize the teaching corps. It doesn’t matter that merit pay, when put in actual practice, turns out to be a sham. It doesn’t matter that eliminating tenure will be expensive. It doesn’t matter that expanded testing is likely a waste of money, telling us nothing useful.

All that matters is that we do something — anything. Full speed ahead, even if our course is completely wrong.

My reformy friends: the burden of proof is on you. Even if I and my fellow skeptics were for maintaining the “status quo” — which we’re not — it would still be up to you to make an affirmative case for the stuff you want to do.

So do that, and stop wasting our time demanding proof of things that can’t be proved.

To paraphrase Adam Smith (sort of), even in a state like Massachusetts, there is a lot of educational ruin. But it is not inexhaustible. And children will pay the price if we get it wrong.

Rather than tearing down a system that works (or worked, as Race to the Top has encouraged Massachusetts lawmakers to tear down its excellent system), we should be establishing it in places that need it the most. That would be real education reform.

*As I mentioned, I have no problem with a national curriculum–it would help economically vulnerable students who have to move often the most. But, please, the Common Core is laden with pedagogical philosophy. These ‘standards’ are not simply lists of things students should know–they also describe how students should learn various subjects–in other words, how they should be taught.

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