Willingham: Stanford charter school and 'confirmation bias'
By Daniel Willingham
Part of what makes the blogosphere so vibrant is that there are so few rules about posting. But that is also what makes it tiresome.
That was especially apparent when the Stanford New Schools, so called because it was created and overseen by Stanford University’s school of education and founded by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, was denied an extension of its charter. This event led to a blog fest, most exhibiting the confirmation bias.
The confirmation bias is a tendency to (1) seek out evidence that confirms your beliefs and (2) interpret ambiguous evidence so that it confirms your beliefs.
For example, suppose an older female supervisor is criticizing a younger male employee in a store. An observer happening on the scene has no idea of its cause, but still might draw an unjustified conclusion about it, based on prior beliefs. Someone who thinks kids today are generally lazy would be sure that the employee deserved a chewing out. A misogynist would conclude that the woman was acting bitchy.
The Stanford New Schools story is a Rorschach ink blot, waiting for the beliefs of the viewer to give it shape and meaning.
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 with 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.
There is probably some truth in both perspectives.The graduation and college matriculation rates make it look like the school was getting students to take school seriously, and to want to continue. It looks like the school got kids from underprivileged backgrounds to believe “school is a place for me, a place that I belong.”
This is no mean feat and should not be dismissed.
At the same time, the low scores on the California Standards Test indicate academic content wasn’t getting through. That can’t be shrugged off either. Although I find it hard to argue that the school was basically succeeding, I sure don’t know why, nor whether or not it should have been closed.
The decision to close the school ought to be based on an evaluation of what the problems are and the plausibility of the plan to fix it. Is the problem poor leadership from the administration? Poor support for teachers? Ineffective lesson plans? A bad curriculum? How long will it take to fix the problems? What reason is there to expect the fixes will succeed?
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.
But Stanford and Linda Darling-Hammond are symbols, the former because it has the top-ranked education school in the nation, the latter because she’s a public intellectual and was President Obama’s education advisor during the campaign. They are icons of progressivism in education.
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.
Sure, it’s noteworthy that a charter school run by Stanford is in trouble, but drawing broader conclusions about what actually happened in the absence of more information seems foolhardy.
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| April 26, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Charter schools, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers | Tags: Daniel Willingham, Linda Darling-Hammong, Stanford charter school, charter schools, guest bloggers
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