I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2015

Burden of Reformy Proof

I'll keep this short, as I can't believe I actually have to write this down:

I see a lot of arguments in social media and blogs and editorial pages and elsewhere along these lines:

"American education is a disaster! We must do something! And you can't prove that my proposed reforms won't work!"

This argument makes no sense for at least three reasons:

1) There is no evidence America education overall is a disaster. The biggest problem we have with our schools is that the ones with high levels of poverty underperform compared to those with low levels of poverty. It's worth noting, by the way, this is true around the world.

Poverty is the independent variable that explains school performance: not tenure, not seniority, not step guides, not unions, not all the other boogeymen reformies see hiding under their beds.

2) Contrary to the assertions of the reformy, there is no compelling evidence that their "reforms" will work; actually, there is at least some evidence they will, in fact, be harmful.

- There is no evidence charter school proliferation will work; it may, in fact, be harmful.

- There is little evidence vouchers will work; they may, in fact, be harmful.

- There is no evidence test-based teacher evaluation will work; it may, in fact, be harmful.

- There is no evidence merit pay works; it may, in fact, be harmful.

- There is no evidence eliminating teacher tenure will work; there is, in fact, plenty of evidence it may be harmful and expensive.

- There is no evidence the expansion of high-stakes, standardized testing will work; in fact, it is harmful.

I'll add here that, contrary to the above, there is good evidence to support reforms such as class size reduction, peer assistance and review-type teacher evaluation, and school funding reform.

3) Most importantly: the burden of proof is on those who propose reforms that seek to radically change our public education system.

I'm going to stretch this analogy a bit: reformies remind me of the believers in Russell's Teapot. Since you can't prove to them that there isn't a teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars, that teapot must, by their faulty logic, exist.

Since this is an imperfect illustration, however, I am going to coin a new phrase to explain reformy thinking: Yogi's Fallacy.

In the reformy mind, we must do something -- anything -- right now to challenge the "status quo," which has clearly held our children back for so long.

It doesn't matter how many failed, corrupt charter schools there may be, or how the segregative effects of charter proliferation may be harming children enrolled in pubic schools. All that matters is that some children get higher test scores than we would predict at some charters (even if the explanations are likely found outside reformy data analysis). All other consequences be damned.

It doesn't matter that vouchers may drain necessary funds from public schools, likely subsidizing children who would have gone to private schools anyway. It doesn't matter that test-based teacher evaluations may narrow the curriculum and demoralize the teaching corps. It doesn't matter that merit pay, when put in actual practice, turns out to be a sham. It doesn't matter that eliminating tenure will be expensive. It doesn't matter that expanded testing is likely a waste of money, telling us nothing useful.

All that matters is that we do something -- anything. Full speed ahead, even if our course is completely wrong.

My reformy friends: the burden of proof is on you. Even if I and my fellow skeptics were for maintaining the "status quo" -- which we're not -- it would still be up to you to make an affirmative case for the stuff you want to do.

So do that, and stop wasting our time demanding proof of things that can't be proved.


Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

Duke, I'm in awe of this post.

Duke said...

Appreciate that, Robert.

Benjamin Morse said...

The reformy movement is a non-sequitur. Supposed to be data driven yet they have no data.

edlharris said...

Dear JJ,
Did you see this:

Black And Hispanic Students Are Making Meaningful Gains, But It’s Hard To Tell


Political leaders are fond of saying the United States is in an education crisis.

The U.S. is often shown to be losing ground internationally. We revisit a Sputnik moment every time international test scores are released, and some of the Sturm und Drang over our decline is a response to America’s middling ranking among other wealthy countries. However, the U.S. has historically underperformed on such cross-national comparisons. We came in 11 out of 12 on the first international assessment of math in 1964, for instance.

“People like the simple story,” said Jack Buckley, the head of research at the College Board, who previously led the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. “And the simple story is we’re treading water while the others are pushing ahead of us. I think [that] is the narrative of the times.”

But the truth is more complicated than the image of a U.S. education system stuck in the mire. And by one important measure, the nation’s students have been improving at a steady pace for decades.


Dave Eckstrom said...

I think many reformers are perfectly aware that their efforts only serve to segregate students and subsidize the tuitions of students who were going to go to private school anyway. Their purpose was never to improve outcomes for all children or even most children. It was merely to pry funding away from the public system for various reasons.

When my kids were young, we were part of a charter "school" for home-schooling families. We were unschooling our kids and were the only family there that weren't fundamentalist christians. Before they were on to us, the founding families were very open about this. They wanted 3 things: (1) An environment for their kids that was "pure" (i.e. away from kids whose families had different values) (2) As much as possible, reclaiming the tax money they felt was "taken" from them by the government and (3) A legal way for their kids to play varsity sports.

When we started asking questions, they started using the talking points you outline above, but no one there had any interest in better educational options for kids. They just wanted the taxpayers to subsidize their choices.