Education Opinion

Role of Research in School Reform

By Walt Gardner — August 25, 2010 2 min read
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Frustration and anger over the plodding pace of school reform in this country have reached a fever pitch. Asking disaffected taxpayers, particularly those with children in failing schools, to be patient will only exacerbate matters. When people are desperate for a solution, they understandably are not receptive to explanations. They demand immediate action.

In an op-ed that was published in the New York Times on Aug. 20 (“Don’t Drop Out of School Innovation”), Paul Tough, the author of Whatever It Takes (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008), makes an enticing argument: The government cannot wait until “airtight proof that a pioneering program works before we commit federal money to it.” As he correctly points out, “a certain skepticism with regard to innovation is always wise, especially in public education, where highly touted new programs often turn out to be disappointments.” Tough uses the Harlem Children’s Zone as a case in point. He describes its impressive results over the past decade, although to his credit he hastens to admit that its record is still incomplete.

Tough’s view reminds me a little of the debate taking place about the FDA. Critics complain that the agency’s long history of caution before approving new drugs has denied sick people the medication they desperately need (“The Danger of Too Much Caution,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Dec. 19, 2004). Critics assert that it’s far better to speed the process along because the risk of harming patients is offset by the benefits.


I think the same qualifier applies to the debate over education reform. Initiatives that have not been fully researched are being ballyhooed as a panacea for the ills afflicting many schools. Yes, parents have waited too long for relief. They rightly understand that their children’s education is perishable. It cannot be put on hold until all questions about remedies have been investigated. Too much is on the line. Jonathan Chait made the same point in The New Republic on Aug. 12: “Innovation, by definition, requires experimenting with unproven methods” (“Mister Ed”).

Here’s where Paul Thomas, associate professor of education at Furman University, comes in. He addressed this issue in OpEdNews on Aug. 17 (“Reconsidering Education ‘Miracles’ ”). Thomas makes a compelling case that “we must distinguish media and political advocacy from evidence, especially when we are faced with claims of ‘miracles.’ ” He stresses the importance of seeing the full picture in the face of complex data and claims of relevance. Thomas also focuses on the Harlem Children’s Zone. But he is not a theoretician like most university professors. He taught in high school for 18 years. As a result, his words carry additional weight.

These two Pauls are extraordinarily bright, and make valuable contributions to the debate by presenting provocative arguments in the best sense of the word. I hope their views are given the proper respect they deserve. Then it’s up to taxpayers to decide which way to proceed. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work. Whether it will is another story.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.