January 21, 2009

A wish for honest arguments

Since Jennifer Jennings and Aaron Pallas are providing their wish list for the new administration this week, I'll chime in with a hope that Paul Krugman's observation for the economic policy team is also true in education. Here is what Krugman wrote January 10 when discussing the Romer-Bernstein graph on the anticipated effects of the stimulus:

Kudos, by the way, to the administration-in-waiting for providing this--it will be a joy to argue policy with an administration that provides comprehensible, honest reports, not case studies in how to lie with statistics.

So, too, it would be wonderful to have a U.S. Department of Education that is more interested in asking hard questions than in fobbing off pat answers and spinning sound bites. This is not a problem that lies solely with the former Bush DOE. It's a problem in school districts, in states, and in past administrations.

When opponents claimed that President Bush lied to the country to start the Iraq War, as an historian I thought to myself, "That assumes that we know his state of mind. Is it a lie if he deluded himself?" At the end of eight years, the former president convinced me that he had deluded himself on many topics. My tentative conclusion about education is that much craziness that passes for education policy comes from the delusions of policymakers that they know "what works" in schools because it fits with their internal thumbnail sociology.

We can no longer afford such delusions and the policy consequences of confirmation bias. Here's the test: will political appointees to the Department of Education state openly where they are not sure, where the research is inconsistent or inconclusive? Will advocates inside and outside the Beltway? That's the difference between focusing debate and shutting off debate, the difference between knowing your values and knowing the limits of research, and the difference between being confident in your judgment and thinking you have a direct line to the truth.

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Tags: Aaron Pallas, Barack Obama, Jennifer Jennings, research, U.S. Department of Education
Posted in Education policy on January 21, 2009 8:02 AM |