When education policies are adopted at the state or federal level, the belief they will improve things “is not based on anything much more solid than faith or hope,” writes Dan Willingham.
Wrapping up a series of posts over at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the UVA cognitive scientist notes that because there are so many moving parts in student outcomes, changing in one factor might yield no difference in student performance. That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. In a previous post, Willingham pointed out that a problem in one part of a school system might mask positive change in another part, “just as repairs to the electrical system of a car might appear to have no effect if the fuel system also needs repair.” This notion seems lost in policy debates, which look at results on a system-wide basis.
Because we lack sufficiently sophisticated system models, Willingham argued in a subsequent post, we “don’t really know what we’re doing in education policy, beyond a very rough cut.” In short, Willingham argues, ”we don’t know much about the system we’re tinkering with, and better knowledge will be a long time coming.”
Moving forward, we have two options, he concludes. We can invest the educational equivalent of the moon shot.
Or we can continue doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years: quibble about theories of systems that we don’t understand, without taking seriously the challenge of understanding them. That’s the path that has cost countless kids a good education along the way, and has led us to the place we are today–a place that very few argue we should stay.
It’s a shame Willingham’s cogent series of posts are appearing in the dog days of summer and are obscured behind the buzz surrounding Race to the Top and the i3 grants. He’s taking the broadest, longest possible view and essentially offering a prism through which to view every recent and current ed reform debate. Here’s hoping some influential policymakers and deep-pocketed philanthropists can take a few moments away from their preferred “theories of action” to consider, “Is he’s talking to me?”