What doomed Stanford’s charter school? Ask anyone in the ed policy world and the chances are pretty good they’ll have a strong opinion. Chances are equally good that opinion will reflect their views on ed policy in general. Writing at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Dan Willingham looks at the chatter among edbloggers about the Stanford New Schools story and sees “confirmation bias”—the tendency to see seek out or interpret evidence in a way that confirms your preconceived notions.
“Education conservatives can point to the school’s abysmally low scores on California’s standardized tests, and point out (either with glee or with artificial dolor) that this outcome was all too predictable, given the school’s philosophy of child-centered learning. Education liberals can point to the school’s excellent high school graduation and college matriculation rates and point out (either with self-righteousness or with anger) that the school’s closing is a predictable consequence of the current obsession standardized test scores. I’ve even seen the argument that the low test scores are badge of honor, because they show that the school would not stoop to drilling students, or to cheating on standardized tests.
Stanford and Linda Darling-Hammond are symbols, Willingham notes, and “icons of progressivism in education” and that colors our response to the story. “Most of us already have strong beliefs on these topics, and so when new, ambiguous information is presented, it is hard not to interpret it in light of our beliefs,” he writes.
So what really happened at Stanford? Did the school deserve its fate? Was it undermined by poor leadership? Lousy teachers? Lack of a curriculum? Was there a plan in place to fix what ailed the school. “None of this was reported in the press, so it’s not really possible to analyze what’s going on at the school with any subtlety,” observes Willingham who says while it’s hard to argue that the school was succeeding, he doesn’t know why or whether or not it deserved to be shut down.
The three most underused and unappreciated words in education policy may very well be “I don’t know.” Having a “take” is more important than having the facts. And the absence of the latter is rarely an impediment to the former. Kudos to Willingham for calling it like he sees it. And not calling it when he can’t.