Uncertainty in School Reform: The Untold Story

Listen to Michael Mann, a climatolgist at Penn State University who talked about the science behind global warming and rising sea levels.

Any honest assessment of the science is going to recognize that there are things we understand pretty darn well and things that we sort of know. But there are things that are uncertain and there are things we just have no idea about whatsoever. (Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012, p. 409).

Ah, if only federal and state policymakers, researchers, and reform-minded educators would see the “science” of school reform in K-12 and higher education in similar terms. “Science” is in quote marks because there is no reliable, much less valid, theory of school reform that can predict events or improvements in schools and classrooms.

Still, for K-12 children and youth there are “things we understand pretty darn well.”

*We understand that socioeconomic status of children’s families has a major influence on students’ academic achievement.

*We understand that a knowledgeable and skilled teacher is the most important in-school factor in student learning.

*We understand the wide variability in student interests, abilities, and motivation.

*We understand that children and youth develop at different speeds as they move through the age-graded school.

Readers can add other “things we understand pretty darn well.”

Then there are “things that we sort of know.” Such as some schools with largely low-income, minority enrollments out-perform not only similarly-situated schools but schools that serve families from middle- and upper-middle income schools.

Or that the more educational credentials graduates collect over time, chances are they will earn more in their lifetime than those who fail to finish school and college.

Or that curriculum standards can outline what students have to learn but the tests–and the rewards and penalties tied to those tests–measuring whether students have reached those standards have a powerful extensive influence on what teachers teach and what students learn.

And there are “things that are uncertain” in schooling children and youth. Consider that over the past quarter-century, the dominant goal for public schools has been college preparation. This is a political decision driven by fear of unskilled U.S. graduates unable to work in ever-changing companies which will fall behind in global competition. The primary way of insuring that administrators and teachers achieve that goal has been regulatory structures of federal and state accountability accompanied by high-stakes incentives and penalties. This also is a political decision for the same reason given above.

Uncertainty has arisen because some parents, researchers, teachers, and policymakers have contested both the goal and structures. Why? Because so many high school graduates have failed to meet college admission standards. Because so many who do go to college drop out after a year or two. Because costs of going to college climb annually. Because K-12 curriculum standards and accountability rules have narrowed what is taught to that which is tested.

Thus, conflicts over the goal and regulatory accountability have created many doubts about the wisdom of these reforms especially in light of mounting evidence that overall academic achievement or the achievement gap between whites and minorities remains pretty much stuck where it was when the reforms were enacted.

And there is uncertainty over the value-added to student learning from new technologies ranging from children using 1:1  iPads or laptops to students learning online.  Uncertainty increases ambivalence among policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and parents over whether deploying expensive hardware, software, and professional development increases, has little effect, or even diminishes academic achievement.

Finally, “there are things we just have no idea about whatsoever.”  Can anyone predict with any confidence the probability, for example, that when Common Core standards and their accompanying tests kick in by 2015, students academic achievement will rise, propel college ready students into higher education, have them graduate, and get jobs that will grow the U.S. economy?  Can anyone predict with confidence, to cite another reform, what will occur as a consequence of evaluating teachers, on the basis of how well or poorly their students do on standardized tests?

Or whether or not MOOCs will  “revolutionize” higher education.

No one can.

The fact is that few who style themselves as school and university reformers in positions of authority sort out publicly what they know from what they don’t know. Or say out loud their doubts about reform proposals under consideration or which have just been launched. Name me a top-level decision-maker who has publicly stated his or her qualms about the worth of a reform they championed. Instead, policymakers and pundits talk from their bully pulpits and deliver overconfident predictions often overstating what will happen and underestimating the difficulties and complexities of making changes.

Unlike Michael Mann, a scientist who publicly says what is known, unknown, and when uncertainty is present, reform-driven educators and non-educators, working with little theory and even less scientifically gathered evidence, bang the drum daily for transforming schools and higher education. They do so without telling recipients what they know, do not know, and what is uncertain in these innovations or revealing to any extent what are the political, social, and economic costs of putting the reform into practice. School reform is filled with ambiguity and guesswork. That is the untold story.



Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

18 responses to “Uncertainty in School Reform: The Untold Story

  1. A strangely heartening message. In 1913 who could predict the horrors, joys and breakthroughs that marked the barely-started 20th C? How could products of the 19th really begin to understand computers, quantum uncertainty and computers–but more importantly the revolutionary social theory and attendant values? That era had its gurus too. Now, here we all are, 100 years later, with our own crop of self-styled experts all confidently telling us what to expect when the truth is most of them are not self-aware enough to see how silly they appear to those who have at least tried to understand the pas and present (let along the future). So how is your above wake-up call heartening? Perhaps it points out the need for modest wisdom; the kind that can listen to the messages of these experts, think “you’re probably full of ____ but perhaps there’s something in there of value,” and then quietly and competently try and integrate that little gem (if it exists) into the mass described as “things we understand PDW.” More interesting times ahead, for sure.

    • larrycuban

      Your comment got me thinking, Maurice. You say I have written a “wake-up” call that, for you, is heartening but requires “modest wisdom” among those listening to experts. I guess I would say that buried in the point of the post is the importance of humility in leaders about what they know and do not know and, as you say,relying on those who receive all of the policy talk to find the nuggets and integrate them into their work and life. Thanks for taking the time to write.

      • My pleasure. Your blog always give me something to think about. Though most of your intended audience is likely in the US I find quite a lot (just about all of it, really, except the particulars of the governance stuff, as we have a different model here in Canada) that applies very well in my country too. Your posts include many different ideas but you know the way it is–some harmonize more than others with the reader. I cherry-pick :>) I heard the call for wisdom and humility loud and clear in this post. I just wish that more would lend their ears and listen–for once–to this one. One of my favorite sayings (which I repeat on a daily basis for my own benefit) is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We therefore have to learn to keep an open mind, listen to all the evidence–particularly the bits that contradict our current notions–and then make choices based on the best available. Hard stuff, it turns out.

      • larrycuban

        So true. Thanks, Maurice.

  2. Jeff Bowen

    Thanks to Maurice Barry for putting your continuum of reform thinking into a well balanced perspective. There is a cyclical aspect to reform and innovation, regardless of the discipline. I think it can be insidious when it tempts us simply to relabel old reforms and trot them out again. However, it is also true that most all great breakthroughs are only a step or two beyond now, and really build on the present. Thus the future is now so to speak. That much seems certain. In any case being honest about what we don’t know reflects integrity…and there is little of that on the bully pulpits of educational reform.

  3. jennie

    What we may “know” however is that all of this comes from “policy talk” — and that the one reform we never seem to try is allowing teachers to have more control and say — I’m certain if we did (well, I guess as you point out I should say ‘I think if we did’) we might get somewhere…perhaps starting with some work in other areas of students’ lives (the economy for example) that impact academic outcomes and an overall acceptance of the fact that “it’s just not simple.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jennie, for the comment. There are instances of great trust in teachers when charters are granted to teacher-run schools. There are a handful of such schools, charter and regular schools in districts that teachers operate. Kim Farris-Berg has written of such schools and will be doing guest posts on this blog.

  4. jennie

    Interesting point, yes – but I guess I was thinking of public/common good schools, which I don’t think Charters are. Charters offer the exciting promise of testing reforms that then could be adopted by public-schools, however, the past seems to show that we “know” this hasn’t happened when the reform is so bold as to suggest that teachers know what they ar doing. Sorry to be so pessimistic, but I’m also feeling so dismayed that since their exciting beginnings in the 90’s Charters seem to have become a leading vehicle for privatization of at should be public, common, democratic schools.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Jenny,
      I guess I do not see the charters that I have worked with, done research on, and visited as dimly as you do. As publicly funded schools in many low-income neighborhoods there are successful, middling, and failing ones. KIPP, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, Rocketship, Aspire, and many other charter organizations have mostly strong schools. These organizations monitor closely their schools and cull out the failing ones. On cyber-charters, many of which are operated by for-profit firms, I share some of your concerns.

  5. Ian Rae

    Excellent analogy with the certainties and uncertainties of climate change. Science is full of cases where the leading voices had it wrong. Usually it takes someone to just do it. In my field (geology), continental drift, and the meteor theory of dinosaur extinction were laughed out of the room for years. Till enough proof was gathered and the laughing stopped.

    One quibble: “fear of unskilled U.S. graduates unable to work in … global competition” This is very certain. Globalization is here and not going away. When jobs can move anywhere, a US worker needs to be much more productive than his Indonesian counterpart. That’s very possible and education is key. Maybe not university education though…but try telling that to parents and young people.

  6. Bob Calder

    Another interesting parallel to climatology. Silver doesn’t emphasize that climate change is supported by multiple converging avenues of research. The industry that was formerly producing “doubt” over the dangers of tobacco continues to successfully produce climate doubt in defiance of sensible behavior.

    Early childhood and education research have multiple converging paths of evidence as well. Instead, education reform emphasizes anecdote.

    The climatology community decided that if our legislators continue to be influenced by the energy industry’s sock puppets, our society could be in serious trouble in a hundred years. Education refuses to take the situation seriously, instead attempting to compromise with purveyors of nonsense.

  7. Donna

    I appreciate and admire your consistently thoughtful posts which are steeped in your deep knowledge of ed reform. I’m currious if you’ve read a new Harvard publication, the Futures of School Reform and, if so, your impressions of its ideas. Here’s a link to a blurb about it: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2013/01/futures-of-school-reform/

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting. I have not seen the edited volume on Futures of School Reform so thanks for letting me know about it. I hope to hear Rick Hess speak at Stanford this week about the book. So much to read, so little time.

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