What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data: http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

Where Is Our “Sense of Decency”?

Before teaching The Crucible in my American literature courses during my two decades as a high school English teacher in rural Upstate South Carolina, I played the students R.E.M.s “Exhuming McCarthy,” which “makes an explicit parallel between the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy‘s time and the strengthening of the sense of American exceptionalism during the Reagan era, especially the Iran-Contra affair” (Wikipedia).

The song includes an audio from the McCarthy hearings, including this soundbite of Joseph Welch confronting Joe McCarthy:  “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator….You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Part of The Crucible unit asked students to examine how societies continue to repeat the basic flaws of abusing power and oppressing powerless groups of people. Despite the lessons of the Witch Trials and the Red Scare/McCarthy Era (with the Japanese Internment in between), Americans seem hell-bent on doubling down on policies and practices that are authoritarian, hypocritical, and simply mean—especially if those policies can be implemented by people with power onto the powerless.

Current education reform needs a McCarthy hearing, and we need to confront those driving those reforms with “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

For example, consider the following:

History is replete with evidence that the ends do not justify the means.

While there remains great political and public support for grade retention, for example, a huge body of evidence shows that retention negatively impacts students retained, taxpayers, and peers not retained—all for mixed results of short-term test scores.

The only justification for grade retention is giving the appearance of being tough (raising a key question about how tough any adult is for lording him/herself over a child).

Americans’ puritanical roots are some of our worst qualities, and especially where children and other marginalized groups are concerned, Americans need to regain our sense of decency.

We would be well advised to begin with how we reform our schools.

Welcome, Doctors, to the Brave New World of Corporate Reform!

What are the problems?

What is the evidence the problems exist?

What is the quality of that evidence?

Who are the stakeholders in the problems and solutions?

What are the perspectives of those stakeholders?

What are the perspectives of the stakeholders with experience and expertise in the problems and solutions?

Who stands to gain personally, professionally, and financially from the problems and solutions?

In the pursuit of any sort of reform, the right questions are essential—as is credible evidence—before solutions can be identified as valid, useful, and potentially effective. The great failure of democracy is that it appears those elected to power have neither the ability to ask the right questions nor the propensity to seek credible solutions. Those leaders are, however, eager to claim problems and support solutions that benefit them.

“In a bold experiment in performance pay, complaints from patients at New York City’s public hospitals and other measures of their care — like how long before they are discharged and how they fare afterward — will be reflected in doctors’ paychecks under a plan being negotiated by the physicians and their hospitals,” announces the lede to “New York City Ties Doctors’ Income to Quality of Care.”

“Bold” apparently means “making decisions based on ideology and not a shred of evidence.”

The article makes no case that doctor pay currently poses any sort of genuine problem—just that doctor pay is “traditional.”  Further, the article does acknowledge two important facts:

“Still, doctors are hesitant, saying they could be penalized for conditions they cannot control, including how clean the hospital floors are, the attentiveness of nurses and the availability of beds.

“And it is unclear whether performance incentives work in the medical world; studies of similar programs in other countries indicate that doctors learn to manipulate the system.”

For those of us struggling against a similar baseless current of teacher evaluation and pay reform, these details are all too familiar: (1) Concerns about accountability being linked to conditions over which a worker has no control (or autonomy), and (2) A complete disregard for the mountain of evidence that merit pay of all kinds proves to be ineffective and triggers for many negative unintended consequences:

“‘The consequences in a complex system like a hospital for giving an incentive for one little piece of behavior are virtually impossible to foresee,’ said Dr. David U. Himmelstein, professor of public health at the City University of New York and a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, who has reviewed the literature on performance incentives. ‘There are ways of gaming it without even outright lying that distort the meaning of the measure.’ …

“Dr. Himmelstein also said doctors could try to avoid the sickest and poorest patients, who tend to have the worst outcomes and be the least satisfied. But physicians within the public hospital system have little ability to choose their patients, Mr. Aviles said. He added that he did not expect the doctors to act so cynically because, ‘in the main, physicians are here because they are attracted to that very mission of serving everybody equally.'”

The medical profession is poised to experience the complete failure of democracy that has been the fate of educators for at least three decades now. Democracy has spawned a legion of people with power but no expertise, and the result is a template for reform that ignores clearly identifying problems, fails to gather credible evidence, bypasses a wealth of experience and expertise, and imposes the mechanisms of inequity that brought those in power to that power.

As a result, buried late in this article on doctor pay reform is a cautionary tale:

“But Dr. Himmelstein said there were still hazards in the city’s plan. He said that when primary-care doctors in England were offered bonuses based on quality measures, they met virtually all of them in the first year, suggesting either that quality improved or — the more likely explanation, in his view — ‘they learned very quickly to teach to the test.'”

Educators, sound familiar?