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

The New Stupid

By Rick Hess — December 19, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A little while back, I published a piece titled “The New Stupid” in Educational Leadership. It’s a piece that’s perhaps more relevant today than when I wrote it, and one that folks continue to ask about. Anyway, given that things have slowed down for the pre-holiday week, I thought I’d share it over the next few days. So, here we go:

A decade ago, it was disconcertingly easy to find education leaders who dismissed student achievement data and systematic research as having only limited utility when it came to improving schools or school systems. Today, we have come full circle. It is hard to attend an education conference or read an education magazine without encountering broad claims for data-based decision making and research-based practice. Yet these phrases can too readily morph into convenient buzzwords that obscure rather than clarify. Indeed, I fear that both “data-based decision making” and “research-based practice” can stand in for careful thought, serve as dressed-up rationales for the same old fads, or be used to justify incoherent proposals. Because few educators today are inclined to denounce data, there has been an unfortunate tendency to embrace glib new solutions rather than ask the simple question, What exactly does it mean to use data or research to inform decisions?

Today’s enthusiastic embrace of data has waltzed us directly from a petulant resistance to performance measures to a reflexive and unsophisticated reliance on a few simple metrics--namely, graduation rates, expenditures, and the reading and math test scores of students in grades 3 through 8. The result has been a nifty pirouette from one troubling mind-set to another; with nary a misstep, we have pivoted from the “old stupid” to the “new stupid.” The new stupid has three key elements.

The first element of the new stupid is Using Data in Half-Baked Ways. I first encountered the inclination to energetically misuse data a few years ago, while giving a presentation to a group of aspiring superintendents. They were passionate, eager to make data-driven decisions and employ research, and committed to leaving no child behind. We had clearly left the old stupid in the rearview mirror. New grounds for concern emerged, however, as we discussed value-added assessment and teacher assignments.

The group had recently read a research brief high-lighting the effect of teachers on student achievement as well as the inequitable distribution of teachers within districts, with higher-income, higher-performing schools getting the pick of the litter. The aspirants were fired up and ready to put this knowledge to use. To a roomful of nods, one declared, “Day one, we’re going to start identifying those high value-added teachers and moving them to the schools that aren’t making AYP.”

Now, although I was generally sympathetic to the premise, the certainty of the stance provoked me to ask a series of questions: Can we be confident that teachers who are effective in their current classrooms would be equally effective elsewhere? What effect would shifting teachers to different schools have on the likelihood that teachers would remain in the district? Are the measures in question good proxies for teacher quality? What steps might either encourage teachers to accept reassignment or improve recruiting for underserved schools?

My concern was not that the would-be superintendents lacked firm answers to these questions--that’s natural even for veteran big-district superintendents who are able to lean on research and assessment departments. It was that they seemingly regarded such questions as distractions. One aspirant perfectly captured the mind-set when she said, “We need to act. We’ve got children who need help, and we know which teachers can help them.”

At that moment, I glumly envisioned a new generation of superintendents shuffling teachers among schools--perhaps paying bonuses to do so--becoming frustrated at the disappointing results, puzzling over the departure of highly rated teachers, and wondering what had gone wrong. This is what it must have been like to listen to eager stock analysts explain in 1998 why some hot new Internet start-up was a sure thing while dismissing questions about strategy and execution as evidence that the stodgy questioners “just didn’t get it.”

Then as now, the key is not to retreat from data but to truly embrace the data by asking hard questions, considering organizational realities, and contemplating unintended consequences. Absent sensible restraint, it is not difficult to envision a raft of poor judgments governing staffing, operations, and instruction--all in the name of “data-driven decision making.”

We’ll pick up the other two elements of the new stupid tomorrow.

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.

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
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
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
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

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 California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)