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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 World Conspires to Make Expertise Unreliable

By Rick Hess — November 29, 2013 6 min read
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Note: This Thanksgiving week, I’m giving RHSU readers a look at my essay in Richard Elmore’s Harvard Education Press volume I Used to Think...And Now I Think. Elmore’s book features a variety of K-12 thinkers--including Howard Gardner, Larry Cuban, Deb Meier, and Mike Smith--discussing how their thinking on schooling has changed over time. For days one and two, see here and here.

Say something smart once and there are huge rewards for spending a career saying it, in increasingly elaborate forms. Academics who own an idea get hired by prestigious universities, deliver keynotes, and get all kinds of attendant perks. Consultants who own an idea become must-haves for districts, foundations, and contractors. The result is a familiar kabuki of hyperspecialists airing their prebaked views.

The world is composed of niches. In each, a thinker may be iconic so long as she stays in her little crevice. Thus, an expert in pharmacology may speak to a cheering conference hall of awe-struck attendees only to walk across the campus or the hotel and quickly become just an anonymous face in the crowd. An expert on school violence or science instruction might be feted as legendary by those in her field but sacrifice that respect and deference should she wander outside that circle. The result discourages individuals from spending much time wrestling with thorny questions or complexities that reach beyond their core expertise. Hence, enormously respected thinkers will offer prescriptions for educational policy or practice that are woefully naïve in terms of political dynamics, organizational realities, institutional pressure, incentives, or practical constraints. Why? Because many of these experts have never spent much time thinking about how their expertise intersects with all the stuff in which they’re not expert.

Meanwhile, within niches, the interest in weighing competing arguments or determining how one’s expertise translates to the larger world is massively undervalued. Expertise promotes deep knowledge, which can too readily lead to inflexibility and self-assuredness (along with the expectation that one’s biases and assumptions will be afforded deference). There are always exceptions, but most thinkers become expert by struggling to the top of their niche on the back of their big idea, and then do all they can to extend the reach of that idea and of the acolytes who aid in that quest--incidentally, or quite purposefully, stymieing heterodox perspectives. In fact, the very nature of expertise is that it stifles dissent and reifies the orthodoxy of the moment.

Moreover, since established figures typically find themselves addressing friendly audiences and gatherings where it is deemed impolite to contest their assumptions and evidence too ardently, it is frighteningly easy for experts to settle into a comfortable bubble where they are surrounded by like-minded peers and adoring disciples, their word is gospel and they are buffered from anything more than occasional interaction with those who might disagree.

Finally, our criteria for expertise are, almost inevitably, relational (e.g. my colleague tells me Trang is terrific) or formulaic (e.g. Wylie was executive director of X for a number of years, launched Y program, or has published eleven articles on this). Why? Our ability to form independent judgments of the hundreds or thousands of individuals most directly engaged in our field of endeavor, much less the thousands more peripherally engaged, is limited by our own inexpert grasp of the world. Only the arrogant or the deluded imagine they perfectly understand the strengths and skills of hundreds of friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Thus, we turn to proxies that are themselves deeply imperfect--but that can lead to our investing great authority in this or that expert for a season.

Done with sufficient skepticism and care, this manner of finding experts is natural and normal. But there’s a decided temptation to lodge excessive influence in our choice of the moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking with a superintendent who has become a guru for a foundation and found myself wondering why this unremarkable man was deemed any more deserving of that status than any of a dozen other superintendents. The difference, in many cases, is nothing more than a personal relationship, experience in a few big districts, or the fact that a superintendent was an early adopter of a reform--all of which, perhaps bizarrely, results in an individual being invested with presumed expertise across a broad range of issues.

So why does any of this matter? Does it make any practical difference when it comes to schools or schooling? I think it does. In education, for instance, despite decades of research, experts have no systematic way to tell who will be a good teacher or how to design practices that lead to predictable improvement at scale. This state of affairs means at least four things.

First, we ought to be hesitant in casually suggesting that we can name, based on our experience, a list of the nation’s best school districts, superintendents, or reading programs. Short of some protocol that helps us identify excellence in a transparent and consistent fashion (for better or worse), we ought to be much humbler about such exercises. They frequently amount to nothing more than an echo chamber, with participants passing on names that they themselves have received second- or third-hand.

Second, we should be wary of prescriptive advice, especially when it’s based on the assumption that expertise easily and immutably travels across contexts. In fact, given its narrowness, expertise can exert a gravitational pull that distorts how one thinks about the larger world. Expertise can come at the cost of perspective when an expert starts contemplating efforts to change policy, organizations, or human behavior. After all, expert advice tends to reflect what experts know, which may not reflect what is most useful for solving the larger problem in the real world. For instance, grand assertions about merit pay, school choice, differentiated instruction, or class size reduction that overlook the practical impact of contracts, policies, existing incentives, and embedded routines can yield results quite different from those the experts are touting.

Third--all that said--expertise has a terrifically useful place, as long as we understand what the experts actually know, which is how to do specific, concrete tasks right. I’m always eager to turn to an expert when the question is how to build a bridge, estimate how many people will visit Vegas next month, design an assessment, erect a new school, or conduct a complicated statistical analysis. I’m less inclined to do so when the questions are bigger, messier, and more dependent on judgment and values.

Finally, we need to recognize that individual experts ought not be invested with too much prescience, but the right mix of experts can help identify tensions, incentives, and the contours of possible solutions. If one assembles the right mix of experts, their competing views can prove enormously helpful in crafting smart policies. The key, however, is not to empower any one expert to play guru but to allow competing expertise to illuminate and inform complex decisions.

One last thought. For what it’s worth, my approach nowadays is not to casually reject educational expertise but to regard its acclaimed ministers with the same attentive skepticism I reserve for financial advisers and real estate agents. They know stuff that’s useful, but that doesn’t entitle them to blind deference or even trusting obeisance. At least not in my book.

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.