Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

It’s Okay to Disagree About Education Reform

By Guest Blogger — March 30, 2018 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Closing out this round of guest bloggers is my research assistant, Amy Cummings. Before joining AEI, Amy taught high school social studies and completed a master’s degree in cognitive science at Columbia’s Teachers College. This week, she’ll share some reflections on what she’s learned about cognitive science, and what it might mean for education policy.

I’ve spent the week reflecting on my cognitive science master’s program and offering some takeaways for education policy. On Monday, I discussed the cognitive science theory-practice divide and the need for the academy to be more intentional in bridging it; and on Wednesday I compared the “radiation problem” to the self-destructive nature of education reform. To close out the week, I’ll share some (non-peer-reviewed) research of my own on the benefits of disagreement.

Last year, I conducted a study with two high-school students to determine whether their thinking evolved more after discussing a topic they agreed on or one they disagreed on. After determining topics on which they agreed and disagreed, I had each student write a 300-word response explaining their initial stance on the topic. I then gave them some background information that corresponded with this initial stance to ensure that they had a basic understanding of the topic.

The students then engaged in two twenty-minute discussions: one for the topic they agreed on and one for the topic they disagreed on. Using an online chat forum, they explained their opinion to their partner and were able to ask questions of their partner’s opinion.

Following the discussion, the students wrote another 300-word response explaining their final stance on the issue. I scored the pre- and post-responses using a rubric that awarded points for a clearly stated position, relevant facts, supporting details, explaining or analyzing significance, and acknowledging and countering opposing arguments. I compared the pre- and post-discussion response scores and conducted a significance test on these change scores to determine how their thinking changed.

As I predicted, the students’ thinking evolved more when they initially disagreed about the topic than when they agreed. Quantitatively, the change scores for their written responses were statistically significant in the positive direction. Qualitatively, the discussion was richer for the topic they disagreed about: They challenged each others’ viewpoints, asked for clarification, and questioned their partners’ comments. Additionally, their post-discussion responses successfully addressed and countered opposing arguments. None of this was true for the topic they agreed about.

The takeaway? Disagreeing with one another helps us learn and evolve in our thinking. It exposes us to competing viewpoints and encourages us to challenge our own thinking. Meanwhile, conversing with people that we agree with creates an echo chamber in which we do little more than list reasons why we believe we’re “right” about an issue, with little to no mention of alternative viewpoints.

As a newcomer to the education policy and reform world, over the last several months I’ve been trying to absorb as much as possible, paying special attention to anything empirical. So what have I learned about the “right” way to reform education? Almost nothing.

Take school choice for example. Depending on where you look, you can find studies that make it look like school choice benefits students and schools, and others that make it sound like choice is destroying our nation’s education system. One study finds that a private-school voucher program has significant negative impacts on math achievement. Another finds that vouchers had positive effects on math achievement. One finds that schools of choice are more segregated; another finds that choice aids desegregation. It’s even hard to tell what the public thinks about choice. Depending on how you ask the question, people’s answers change quite a bit. You could find the same for choice’s effect on school-level outcomes, parental satisfaction, non-academic outcomes, and so on.

The point is that it’s easy to find studies that support your initial stance on choice, whether you think it “works” or it doesn’t. Further, I’ve found that many of the same researchers consistently find positive effects of choice, while others consistently find negative effects. Just as the students in my study experienced more growth in their thinking after discussing a topic they disagreed about, the research community may benefit from talking to, and even collaborating with, researchers who have differing beliefs about school choice—or whatever the topic may be. In doing this, we might learn something new about a topic, or see a different side of it that we had not previously considered. Working across the ideological spectrum in this way has the potential to create more comprehensive research that scrutinizes potential biases from both sides of the issue. I don’t think this happens as much as it should, and much of the across-the-aisle communication I’ve seen is more combative than collaborative. We shouldn’t see such disagreement about an issue as a roadblock to reform, but as an opportunity.

Amy Cummings

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP