Willingham on school choice
My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
By Daniel Willingham
Education historian Diane Ravitch’s book, "The Death and Life of the American School System", has been well publicized and I won’t review it here, other than to encourage you to read it, as I encourage you to read anything that Ravitch has written. She is a brilliant scholar.
I have been fascinated by the response to the book, and in particular to Ravitch’s conclusion on charter schools, and more broadly on the idea of school choice. The hope was that school choice might lead to an array of benefits: leaner bureaucracy, satisfied parents, motivated administrators, and, ultimately, better student learning.
That was the theory, the model of what was supposed to happen. Ravitch concludes that the data don’t fit the prediction; they are uneven. I believe a fair summary of Ravitch’s position is: “If school choice were going to have a profound, positive influence, we’d know that by now.”
What do you do when a theory makes a prediction and the observed data don’t fit? This is a common problem in science, but there is not a set of guidelines for an appropriate response. Ravitch’s response is one: abandon the theory. Other possible responses have appeared in critiques of Ravitch’s book:
You can claim that the data actually do fit the model, as Mark Schneider does.
You can claim that there aren’t enough data to make a judgment yet as Paul Peterson does.
You can claim that the wrong prediction was tested, as Rick Hess does.
You can claim that the experimenter doesn’t really know how to interpret the data, as Andrew Coulson does, or that, at least in this case, the data have been analyzed improperly, as Nelson Smith does.
Another option, not taken up by any commentator that I’m aware of but that seems the most reasonable to me, would be to modify the theory and thus the predicted outcome. School choice will not help under all circumstances, but it might under some circumstances. The next task would be to generate hypotheses about the conditions under which school choice ultimately results in improved schooling.
So which response is the right one? Don’t scientists have rules of thumb as to when we abandon theories, when we know that we have enough data that they have been suitably tested, and so on?
No, we don’t. It is one of the chief topics over which philosophers of science have argued, from the logical positivists, to Karl Popper, to Thomas Kuhn to Imre Lakatos: On what basis do scientists discard ideas, and on what basis should they do so?
Paul Feyerabend, philosophic gadfly, delighted in pointing out that for any rule of thumb about how science ought to progress, one could look at the history of science and find an instance of a great discovery that would have been missed, had the rule of thumb been respected.
In one of Feyerabend’s compelling illustrations, Galileo ignored plain data, right before his eyes. Galileo championed Copernicus’ model of a heliocentric solar system—but if the earth is spinning, isn’t it obvious that a rock dropped from a tower should not fall near the tower, but away from it?
It doesn’t, but Galileo overcame that obvious bit of data in his thinking. Thus, Feyerabend argues, even the obvious dictum “a theory ought to fit the observed data” should not be respected one hundred percent of the time.
But that brings us to another vital point from the philosophy of science, emphasized by many, if not most philosophers: Theories should not be evaluated solely on how well they fit observations in the world. They should be compared to one another.
Don’t ask, “Does school choice lead to better student learning?” Rather, ask “How does school choice stack up against our other options?”
More than a free market of school choice that is implemented universally, I would like to see a free market of competing ideas for school reform, systematically compared.
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| March 15, 2010; 9:09 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers | Tags: Daniel Willingham, charter schools, guest bloggers
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