Skeptical toward Ed Reforms? You should be.

A friend and colleague of mine is known for quipping that 56% of all statistics are made up on the spot. He, of course, changes the number each time to drive home his joke. But there is a certain truth to that statement, too, isn’t there?

Well, it is with that statement in mind that I offer the following dubious ratio for your consideration. Decide for yourself whether the notion holds any weight.

Be 30% skeptical regarding all education reforms and trends.

Why 30%?  No reason, only that I think we tend to sometimes give either too much trust, or too little to education reforms. 30% seems right to me, and it’s my blog.

Those who have been in the arena of public education for a while will no doubt have seen many reforms come, and some go over the years. This leads to a healthy skepticism that usually sounds kind of like, “Ah! This is just another version of that thing we did back then! Get off my lawn!”  Actually those voices tend to be TOO skeptical. They treat anything new as bad or tired, because they hate change, and think it’s all the same. They are also right. Lots of today’s reforms are repurposed ideas from the past. Marzano’s work is based on Bloom, Dufour recalls Dewey, and Danielson draws heavily from Madeline Hunter…and all of them from each other, too. The point is, treating an experienced teacher as if they have had a head injury because they have noticed similarities between pedagogical strategies over the years is really stupid. Anyone who has done any educational research knows they are right.

So, why is it so bad? Why is calling the establishment out on this revolving door of ideas so wrong? Well, it starts with the blanket rejection. Do those Marzano naysayers reject Marzano because they firmly believe the Bloom approach is superior? Rarely. Instead they blanket reject any of it, the repetition of ideas simply serves as a convenient excuse.  Another reason this is dangerous is that like any research, education researchers build better ideas, methods, and strategies upon what went before to improve, replicate, or prove an idea. In many cases the modern version of an education reform is enhanced from its predecessor. The infusion of modern technology or the framing of the idea in the context of a modern classroom is crucial for great ideas to thrive.  We need to remind ourselves that at the core of this revolving door is something that is really effective or really good. We need to trust that a bit more.

HOWEVER, if we take that packaged, shiny, brand new reform hook, line, and sinker with no skepticism at all, we become products ourselves. There is a lot of money and power at stake in education. Bill Gates is influencing education in major ways, State governors have pushed through a universal curriculum known as Common Core, and textbook publishers are bending the truth to the wishes of their political backers.  We cannot afford to take “popular” as good pedagogy. We need to have a healthy skepticism toward packaged institutional education reforms. It may be good stuff. It might not be. In most cases, I think it comes down to how it is implemented.

I have noticed that newer teachers and administrators lack this skepticism, and tend to be more likely to jump on reform bandwagons without question. The drive for higher standardized scores and more effective core instruction fuels this, but so does the notion that all new educators are change agents. Like the different skill levels of cooks, not every educator is a natural at inspiring change. Some need a recipe. They are enamored by products already assembled to help.  This can be a dangerous combination. It is entirely possible for a new administrator working with many inexperienced teachers to decide on, adopt, and implement an entire system of pedagogy without even fully understanding how it works, or whether it is likely to produce favorable results. Five years down the road, everyone wonders what the rationale was in the first place, and no one knows. Worse yet is the administration who becomes so enamored by a major shift that they cannot unbiasedly judge it and confront problems with the system head-on.

So, I propose the 70/30% rule. With anything new that comes down the education pipe, let’s all collectively, regardless of experience and previous knowledge, take a 30% skeptical stance, and ask it a few very basic questions before we jump on the bandwagon:

  • Is it good for kids?
  • Is it REALLY good for kids? The whole child, not just the part we are testing?
  • How do we know it is good for kids? Are there multiple measures of effectiveness?
  • Is there qualitative research from case studies and pilots in similar schools with similar students?
  • Is there money at the front-end of it? Who stands to profit or advance?
  • What is the check and balance? What structures will help us know whether we are seeing the results we expected? Are we seeing any side-effects? Are we admitting those or just ignoring them?
  • Which parts of this are recycled? What is the upgrade?

Be skeptical, but be also ready for change. Once these questions are adequately addressed, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Education does need some reforming. We are the ones to do it. Let’s just go about it like the smart people we are!

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