Obama ed policy lacks scientific support -- Willingham
My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
By Daniel Willingham
“We will restore science to its rightful place . . .”
So said President Obama in his inaugural address. Although he was not referring to education policy in particular, he made it clear in his first major speech on that subject that he planned to take scientific evidence seriously when formulating education policy, saying “Secretary Duncan will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.”
His actions contradict this claim.
The relationship between scientific knowledge and the application of that knowledge is complex and has many dimensions. One dimension in particular is salient here: how confident must we be in a scientific finding for it to merit application (or better, attempted application) in policy?
In standard philosophical views of science, all scientific knowledge is considered provisional. We always acknowledge that our understanding is incomplete, and that a better, more complete theory might be proposed tomorrow.
But a theory can still be reliable enough to be useful. To use a time-worn example, Newton’s description of universal gravitation and three laws of motion proved ultimately to be incomplete.
But these laws provide an amazingly good fit to observed data most of the time, and they are certainly useful.
So a theory doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be applied.
But how imperfect can it be? What should our criterion be for scientific support before we declare “we know this is true, and education policy should reflect it?”
That’s always going to be a judgment call, but given the state of the data, I have to call the president’s judgment into question.
But of the four, only one could be said to have clear scientific support.
The well-supported policy initiative is an emphasis on early childhood education. Aside from ample research by developmental psychologists showing that the early childhood years are a critical time for learning, economists have conducted persuasive studies showing that early childhood intervention programs can have lasting and profound effects on at-risk kids.
Better-educated kids are more likely to be tax-paying contributors to the economy and less likely to be incarcerated or on public assistance. Thus, in the long run intervention programs for at-risk kids more than pay for themselves.
For the other three policies that the administration emphasizes—teacher evaluation using student data, a greater number of charter schools, and improved standards—the data are more mixed.
Much has been written in the last month about the reliability and validity of value added measures of teacher performance based on student test scores, subsequent to the Los Angeles Times funding the calculation of these scores for Los Angeles-area teachers and then publishing the individual results.
But long before that, measurement experts had published reviews of the scientific literature with a general consensus that such models are a promising way to evaluate some aspects of teacher performance, but the resulting data are not yet reliable enough to be applied.
That’s why the Board on Testing and Measurement of the National Research Council wrote a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressing, among other things, concern over the emphasis on value added measures in the Race to the Top competition.
How about charter schools? The key question is whether kids who enter charter schools learn more than comparable kids entering other public schools. The data on this question are mixed.
It would be nice if the reduced bureaucratic burden that typifies charter status automatically led to better student outcomes. That seems not to be the case. Rather, it seems probable that some charter schools are well run and effective and others are not.
The best hope for this approach may be that status as a charter may allow for more rapid change in ineffective schools or for the closure of the school. If there is a reliable method to employ that strategy, we’re not there yet.
What about improving standards? On logical grounds, tough standards seem like a good idea; surely it’s better for teachers to aim for excellence than to aim for mediocrity.
But tough standards are not sufficient. We know that because there has been variation in state standards in the past, and there is no relationship between the quality of the standards and student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to an analysis by Russ Whitehurst & Michelle Croft.
I’m not concluding that any of these three ideas--teacher evaluation based on student test scores, a greater number of charter schools, or tougher standards--is bad or hopeless.
But it is inaccurate to claim that in emphasizing policies based on these ideas, Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan are “restoring science to its rightful place.”
Scientific support is not the only arguments one can advance to support a policy. Other arguments ought to be tried, because the scientific support is inadequate.
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| September 13, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories: Charter schools, Daniel Willingham, Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, National Standards, Race to the Top, Research, School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment | Tags: common core standards, daniel willingham, duncan and policy, duncan and reforms, naep, national assessment of educational progress, obama and education policy, obama and inaugural address, obama and school reform, president obama and education, race to the top, race to the top requirements, science and obama administration, teacher assessment
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