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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

Steering Clear of “The New Stupid”

By Rick Hess — December 23, 2011 3 min read
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Note: This week, I’m giving RHSU readers a look at my essay from Educational Leadership entitled “The New Stupid.” For days one and two, see here and here.

If you see warning signs of the new stupid, what should you do? There are at least four keys to avoiding the new stupid.

First, educators should be wary of allowing data or research to substitute for good judgment. When presented with persuasive findings or promising new programs, it is still vital to ask the simple questions: What are the presumed benefits of adopting this program or reform? What are the costs? How confident are we that the promised results are replicable? What contextual factors might complicate projections? Data-driven decision making does not simply require good data; it also requires good decisions.

Second, schools must actively seek out the kind of data they need as well as the achievement data external stakeholders need. Despite quantum leaps in state assessment systems and continuing investment in longitudinal data systems, school and district leaders are a long way from having the data they require. Creating the conditions for high-performing schools and systems requires operational metrics beyond student achievement. In practice, there is a rarely acknowledged tension between collecting data with an eye toward external accountability (measurement of performance) and doing so for internal management (measurement for performance).

The data most useful to parents and policymakers focus on how well students and schools are doing; this is the kind of data required by No Child Left Behind and collected by state accountability systems. Although enormously useful, these assessments have also exacerbated a tendency of school and district leaders to focus on the data they have rather than on the data they need.

Current conditions call to mind the parable of the drunken man crawling under the streetlight while searching for his keys. A Good Samaritan stops to help; after minutes of searching, she finally asks, “Are you sure you dropped your keys here?” The man looks up and gestures toward the other end of the street, saying, “No, I dropped them down there--but the light’s better over here.” We must take care that the ready availability of data on reading and math scores for grades 3 through 8 or on high school graduation rates--all of which provide useful information--do not become streetlights that distract more than they illuminate.

Third, we must understand the limitations of research as well as its uses. Especially when crafting policy, we should not expect research to dictate outcomes but should instead ensure that decisions are informed by the facts and insights that science can provide. Researchers can upend conventional wisdom, examine design features, and help gauge the effect of proposed measures. But education leaders should not expect research to ultimately resolve thorny policy disputes over school choice or teacher pay any more than medical research has ended contentious debates over health insurance or tort reform.

Finally, school systems should reward education leaders and administrators for pursuing more efficient ways to deliver services. Indeed, superintendents who use data to eliminate personnel or programs--even if these superintendents are successful and vindicated by the results--are often more likely to ignite political conflict than to reap professional rewards. So long as leaders are revered only for their success at consensus building and gathering stakeholder input, moving from the rhetorical embrace of data to truly data-driven decision making will remain an elusive goal in many communities. This is especially true given state and federal statutes, salary schedules, and established policies that restrict the ability to redeploy resources and that make aggressive efforts to act on data and research exhausting and contentious. The result is a chicken-and-egg conundrum, where officials have limited incentive to track managerial data given their limited ability to use it, yet the resulting vacuum makes it more difficult to argue that flexibility will be used in informed and appropriate ways.

Research and data are powerful tools. Used thoughtfully, they are dynamic levers for improving schools and schooling. In this new era, educators stand to benefit enormously from advances in research and data systems. Let us take care that hubris, faddism, or untamed enthusiasm do not render these gifts more hindrance than help.

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.