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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

The Self-Destructive Nature of Education Reform

By Guest Blogger — March 28, 2018 2 min read
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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.

On Monday, I offered some reflections on my cognitive science master’s program—namely, that not enough of these findings are seen or talked about “in education.” In digging back into my notes from graduate school, I came across what remains my favorite study in cognitive science, and one that I think can give some perspective on the nature of education reform. It’s called the “radiation problem,” and it goes like this:

Suppose you are a doctor faced with a patient who has a malignant tumor in his stomach. It is impossible to operate on the patient, but unless the tumor is destroyed the patient will die. There is a kind of ray that can be used to destroy the tumor. If the rays reach the tumor all at once at a sufficiently high intensity, the tumor will be destroyed. Unfortunately, at this intensity the healthy tissue that the rays pass through on the way to the tumor will also be destroyed. At lower intensities the rays are harmless to healthy tissue, but they will not affect the tumor either. What type of procedure might be used to destroy the tumor with the rays, and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue?

Did you come up with the solution? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t: Only about 10 percent of University of Michigan undergraduates were able to spontaneously solve the problem. If you’re still struggling, consider this story:

A country falls under the rule of a dictator, who rules from a fortress in the middle of the country. Several roads radiate out from the fortress. A general with a large army rises to power and wants to overthrow the dictator. He knows his army is large and strong enough to capture the fortress, so he positions them at the head of one of the roads. Before they could attack, a spy told the general that the dictator planted small mines on every road, which small groups could pass over safely, but large groups would cause to detonate. This meant the general's army could not stage a direct attack on the fortress, so he divided them into smaller groups. Each group traveled down a different road at the same time, meeting at the fortress to attack at full strength. The general successfully captured the fortress and overthrew the dictator.

Got it yet? If not, you still shouldn’t feel too bad. Only about 30 percent of participants were able to solve the problem with the help of the story. It turns out we’re just not that good at spontaneous analogical reasoning. (For the record, the solution involves breaking the radiation into smaller sources that converge at the tumor.)

Anyway, this problem reminded me a lot of the world of education reform—or at least my short experience with it thus far. The story could easily read like this:

Suppose you are faced with an education system that continues to deliver mediocre results compared to other countries. On top of this, poor and minority students on average perform worse than their white, more advantaged counterparts. There are no quick fixes, but unless changes are made the country will continue to exhibit unexceptional performance. The federal government has the power to make policies that affect the nation's education system. Unfortunately, directives from federal government can undermine potentially effective state, local, and individual program efforts to improve education. What would you recommend to help improve the state of education in this country?

It’s easy to see why improving schools with top-down efforts from Washington can seem tempting—but as in the radiation problem, these “high-intensity rays” can ultimately be destructive.

After all, No Child Left Behind was a federal effort to make American education more competitive with other countries and close the achievement gap by making 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014. However well-intentioned it was, in the process, an emphasis on these tested subjects took away instructional time from subjects like history, science, and art; and faced with a target of 100-percent proficiency target, states had perverse incentives to set low standards. The Common Core, while not a federal directive by name, lured states with Race to the Top money and NCLB waivers. Similarly well-intentioned, these federal standards sought to make American students “college- and career-ready.” However, signing on not only came with a hefty price tag, but also meant doing away with standards that could be more relevant to state and local contexts.

As you all have heard Rick say before, policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do those things well. If education wants to be less self-destructive, policymakers should avoid the temptation to use the high-intensity policy ray whenever possible—deferring to smaller-scale reform efforts that are less destructive but may be equally, if not more, effective. None will serve as a panacea, but they’re also less likely to damage other well-intended, “healthy-tissue” efforts.

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.