June 25, 2009

See-no-knowledge in education policy?

I seem to be reading several "we don't know anything so let's plow ahead" arguments in education think-tankery, from Mike Petrilli's argument that because we don't currently have a solid research base about how to turn schools around, we shouldn't try, to Kevin Carey's consistent argument in Education Sector's blog that because there is no research consensus about predictors of good teaching (and considerable research suggesting that there is not a link between effectiveness and countable items like years of experience beyond the first few or graduate degrees), it makes better sense to let people into teaching and then evaluate their effectiveness.

Fortunately, that's not the approach of the Institute of Education Sciences under John Easton, which has just announced a large research initiative on turning around schools. I suspect that both Petrilli and Carey would acknowledge that research in difficult topics is a good thing and argue that IES initiatives are different from policy, because sometimes you have to make decisions based on the state of knowledge you have, not the ... oh, shoot, there's Donald Rumsfeld phrasing again. But you probably know what I mean: Petrilli and Carey's stances are policy stances based on topic-specific agnosticism, not opposition to research.

But there's a serious question buried here: on big questions of policy, where you have to make choices, and the research is nondirective, how do you make decisions? I think the answer has to be incrementally, to allow research to catch up and influence policy later. If you make a huge political and institutional commitment to a policy path that has no research support and no ethical/legal obligation, then you're committing millions of children and hundreds of thousands of educators to a path that is very hard to change later. 

For that reason, while I think Arne Duncan's four-choice speech earlier this week is not based on research, and Petrilli is correct that there is no particular reason to believe that charter schools will somehow rescue the education of students otherwise stuck in horrible circumstances, the policy itself is good largely because it doesn't make hard and fast commitments to a particular path. The good thing about a charter is that it can be revoked, and in states such as Florida where there is a single authorizer for a geographic area (here, the county school boards), authorizers can be reasonably aggressive in shutting down shady or incompetent operations. So I share Petrilli's skepticism, but precisely because I am skeptical of any particular approach to schools in crisis, and because Duncan is being wishy-washy, I will applaud the Secretary for being wishy-washy. 

Update: I first used the term "know-nothingism" in the title. Ugh. Bad move for an historian. Petrilli and Carey are not members of the 19th century anti-immigrant party. Mea culpa.

Listen to this article
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 25, 2009 8:49 AM |