Faith-Based Education Reform

by Robert Pondiscio
August 10th, 2010

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?”


  1. Willingham is convincing. At the same time, some of the moving parts that make up education are more accessible to change, and can have ripple effects on some of the other parts. For my money, curriculum is one of those. I even think that better curriculum would attract stronger students to the profession, and students who are more likely to work hard at the art of teaching, since strong curriculum envisions actual results, unlike some of the pedagogies that are afoot today. It was an enlightening moment for me when a high school student explained why he dropped Japanese: “she wasn’t teaching us the structure of the language.”

    Comment by JB — August 10, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  2. The Department of Education needs some common sense. Here is one example of how they harm students and educators:

    There are plenty of people who can teach math and science but are denied the opportunity because of Department of Education rules. Suppose you have a solid background in math, are a little older than the average teacher and despise being tested. You take the Praxis test in math and score very high even though you did not wish to be there. Later, you are told there is a second test you must take in mathematical models and proofs but rather than the required 144, you only get a 143. Instead of being allowed to use your skills at the school a half mile from your house, you are told you are not allowed to teach math. A large segment of the student body failed the state math test. You offer a second time to help the students pass. You know you can raise their scores in mathematics, teach them how to use all the very latest nSpire calculator functions and even provide instruction on the school’s latest Interactive but again, you are turned away because you scored ONE point too low on the state exam. Again, the kids fail their tests.

    Comment by Norm — August 10, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

  3. I like this the idea presented here: “just as repairs in the electircal system of a car might appear to have no effect if the fuel system also needs repair”. Consider this somewhat parallel example. How can we judge whether the cars of today are better than the cars of a half a century ago? Well, we might argue that the real test of a car is how well it gets one to work. After all, that is really a very important function of a car. It is not the only function of a car, but it is a very important one. So why not use it as a standard of judging cars? Set up some sort of rubric to score each car,giving points in different categories based on how well the car gets one to work.

    The first car I ever owned, a 55 chevy, got me to work. How well? It got me to work fast and dependably. It carried anything I needed to bring along to work. It kept the rain out on the trip. The heater worked in the winter. It didn’t have air conditioning for the summer, so that would be a point against it. I didn’t get very good gas milage, I suppose, another point against it. But in the big picture it was an entirely satisfactory car. It got me to work. Many cars in the intervening years have done the same. They got me to work. The car I drive today gets me to work. By this standard it’s pretty hard to say that cars today are better than cars of half a century ago. they all got me to work, and in pretty much the same way.

    But I think cars today are lots better than cars of half a century ago. The standard, “Does it get you to work?” is important, but not very revealing, not very exciting, not very satisfying, not even very interesting. It’s a global end product measure. But there’s a lot more to consider about cars than the global end product requirement, which my 55 Chevy met quite adequately. And we care about a lot more in a car than whether it simply gets one to work.

    Have we allowed something like this to happen in education? Test scores are important, but that’s a global end product measure. Shouldn’t we be interested in all all the little details and processes that lead to that end product measure. When engineers design cars that address a zillion technical details, without asking whether each and every detail will affect the final “get you to work” score. What’s the parallel to that in education?

    I think the parallel to that in education is taking a close look at teaching and learning as it actually happens, not how it’s supposed to happen according to some education fad or perspective. I’ll offer as one example an article on my website: This is just some simple analysis based on simple observations. Its corresponding parallel to cars is more like struggling with the details of basic automobile design than with a grand new concept that promises to revolutionize how we get to work. The ideas I develop in this article have nothing to do with reform. They promise no magic pot of gold at the end of some rainbow. They are just some ideas on how we form concepts. But I think they, and a lot of other mundane ideas about how teaching and learning actually happen, are important.

    Comment by Brian Rude — August 11, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

  4. I’ve been reading this blog for several weeks now and only now have i commented here on how wonderful this blog is.I am also a teacher and i find your blog to be a source of motivation to give the best of my abilities thru teaching even though the present educational system is a bit dissapointing.

    Comment by devry university online — August 11, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

  5. It’s curious that in the post, Mr. Pondiscio ignores the issue of standardized test scores. Everyone claims that they want kids to get a quality education. However, as soon as a lot of kids get high scores, people like Mr. Pondiscio and Dan Willingham claim that we’re “dumbing down” our kids and “selling them short.” If the tests don’t prove anything, then why continue to use them at all?

    Mr. Pondiscio and Dan Willingham ignore the fact that the reason why ed reforms never work is that every time somebody proposes a way to raise achievement and it happens, another group of people will claim that it isn’t good enough and will DEMAND failure for many kids. Our educational system is broken because no one really wants every kid to be successful.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 12, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  6. Dan’s article made a lot of sense to me.

    “…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.”

    Charter schools are a classic example. There are numerous studies attempting to validate or disprove this attempt at reform. Many would argue the bottom line on charters yield no difference in student performance.

    However, I have to believe many inner-city parents believe charter schools are a gift from heaven; an escape from the depths of hell of the local public school many have been forced in the past in which to merely mark time.

    As an outside observer I view charters at least as a reprieve from hell and perhaps time spent in the purgatory of our public school system – charter schools. For this reason alone I believe charter schools are effective. Wouldn’t you?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 13, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  7. I completely agree with you, Paul. In fact, let me confess something that is completely at odds with our data-obsessed age: I have no idea what the reading scores are at my daughter’s school. I have no idea what the scores are for different demographic groups. When choosing her school, it was not on my list of things to be curious about. And I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard. Middle class and affluent parents, I think, define “good school” in ways that have nothing to do with test scores and everything to do with environment and opportunites for their kids — sports teams, school bands, student diversity, active parents, etc. The question o whether charters are better or worse as a class is interesting, but ultimately not particularly relevant for a parent. You don’t send your kid to EVERY school, you send your kid to THIS school. And sometimes the ability to exercise choice is an intrinsic good.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 13, 2010 @ 9:55 am

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