Education Opinion

‘What Works’ Critique ‘Misses the Point’

By Chester E. Finn Jr. — June 18, 1986 9 min read

Since the March release in the White House East Room of the Education Department’s slim volume titled “What Works,” the overwhelming response to it from within and without the education community has been positive, even laudatory.

Editorials commending the book’s clarity, good sense, and usefulness have appeared in papers as dissimilar as The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Post. It has been hailed from Coos Bay to Shreveport, from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune.

Liberals like it. Conservatives like it. Most educators do, too. We’ve heard from Albert Shanker and Scott Thomson, from Ernest Boyer and Samuel Sava, and from lots of others. Perhaps most remarkable, “What Works” has gotten high marks—oral and written--from the research community as well.

Writes T.N. Postlethwaite, chairman of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (I.E.A.): “It achieves the pulling-together of research results and their presentation in simple language to a lay audience. I am most impressed. It is the first time that any government agency--anywhere in the world, as far as I know--has done something like this and it has succeeded.”

Closer to home, we have glowing letters from the current and past presidents of the American Educational Research Association. Its principal journal recently published a warmly supportive commentary by Marshall Smith, the incoming dean of Stanford University’s school of education. (See “‘What Works’ Works,” Educational Researcher, April 1986.)

The book “works” not only for scholars and education V.I.P.'S, but also for practitioners. About a quarter-million copies have been distributed thus far, making “What Works” almost surely the largest-circulated education research publication in history.

Moreover, its major points have been widely reproduced by others, and dozens of organizations have borrowed our plates so they can make their own copies of the full text. Some have already done this. The superintendent of schools in St. Paul, for example, recently furnished every one of that district’s professional employees with a complete reprint of “What Works” that he had made right there in the Twin Cities area.

Especially gratifying to those of us who midwifed the book have been comments from hundreds of principals, teachers, and parents who have spent a quiet hour or so with ''What Works” and then gone to the bother of writing to tell us why they found it helpful.

To be sure, this publication has had its critics. Most have been responsible, many constructive, a lot of them chiefly concerned that topics or findings of special interest to them didn’t get included. We’re responding: several successor volumes are in the planning or preparation stage, including at least one for which the education community at large will be invited to suggest entries.

But there have been some nasty and irresponsible attacks, too. Much the most strident of these appeared in the May 28 issue of Education Week, under the byline of Leon Botstein, president of Bard College (''Why ‘What Works’ Doesn’t Work,” Commentary). This particular piece so missed the point and so basely attacked the motives of the compilers of ''What Works” that my first impulse (as the one Administration official named in this screed) was to fire off a Menckenesque rejoinder, suggesting to Mr. Botstein that some crackpot was writing drivel and signing his name.

But his commentary, however flawed, seems to have been seriously intended. Hence it warrants a serious response. So far as I can tell, every major point in it is either false or--where only opinion is involved--mean- spirited, often both.

First note what Marshall Smith wrote about ''What Works": “The publication follows a straightforward formula: Allocate one page per finding; package attractively; write clearly and without jargon; choose findings that seem useful and are neither counterintuitive (at the present time) nor particularly controversial; and finally, recognize some of the complexity of the findings without extolling it.”

Mr. Smith precisely understood our purpose and our method. Yet for Mr. Botstein the result of such efforts are “lies,” pure and not so simple, a great fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting people by an evil Education Department. He claims intentional deceit by the Administration in the choice of findings. Moreover, he says the book is a great big red herring. Mr. Botstein avers that our goal was ''to deflect attention from the true role and responsibility of the federal government in education.”

As he repeats many times, Mr. Botstein holds that all Washington is supposed to do is send money, gobs and gobs of it. Because ''What Works” is silent about fiscal matters, Mr. Botstein detects conspiracy. No way our motives could have been benign, much less constructive, in setting about to furnish people with knowledge that they might act upon to improve the education of children. No way the background, intent, and method of ''What Works” could be what its compilers state in the book’s introduction and systematically follow throughout the text. Mr. Botstein is interested in money, not knowledge. Perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered reading ''What Works"; his enthusiasms would seem better suited to a tour of the Treasury Department.

“What Works” was meant for educators and especially for parents. But Mr. Botstein doesn’t think we understand about parents, either. He believes we inhabit “a fairy-tale land where the nuclear family is intact, where adults are possessed of the leisure and desire to read to children, talk about the meaning of words, help kids count everyday objects, and draw.”

This criticism did not originate with Mr. Botstein. Secretary of Education William J . Bennett has termed it the “Ozzie and Harriet” fallacy. Those making it seem not to realize how condescending it is to the millions of responsible parents (and other adults) who don’t live in “traditional” or middle-class families, but who are nevertheless determined that their children should be well-educated. You don’t have to be prosperous to read to a child; indeed, the child you read to need not even be your own.

We rather supposed that adults with the least leisure would most welcome some clear guidance about how it might be invested most efficaciously in the well-being of the children they care for.

One of the clearest and most robust findings of educational research is that if adults hold high expectations of youngsters, and act according to those expectations, the children will learn more. This is no fairy tale. “What Works” argues that any child can learn and that all caring adults must hold--and act on the basis of--high standards for children. The only fairy tale is making light of so important a truth.

Mr. Botstein asks if research has really shown that poverty and prejudice are irrelevant to a child’s learning. Of course not. But “What Works” makes no such claim. Through what distorted lens does he read? “What Works” turns out, not far below its surface, to be a radical document that empowers parents, especially poor ones. It embraces the very truth that Mr. Botstein says it rejects, that education has been--and still can be--an effective instrument of social mobility for the disadvantaged in our society.”

Some parents may lack the know-how, but few are without the impulse. Immigrant parents (whom Mr. Botstein invokes for authority), including those who could not read to their children in English, sent them packing off to school with the sure conviction that this was a way to better their lot. No child of such parents failed to feel the power of that value. It was part of the very air in the home. We should expect no less of adults and parents today. The findings in ''What Works” can help. (Indeed, most of today’s immigrant and refugee parents still live by this keen education value.)

Mr. Botstein also makes much of what he terms inappropriate and unfair comparisons of American students to youngsters in I other countries. He refers, of course, to the two graphs of comparative mathematics scores in “What Works,” both drawn from the second I.E.A. survey of achievement, one for 8th-grade arithmetic and one for high school algebra and calculus.

Perhaps Mr. Botstein didn’t read the legends on the graphs. In the case of the 8th grade, the comparisons displayed in ''What Works” are utterly fair (though they don’t show the United States to any advantage), because essentially all students in participating I.E.A. countries stay in school through the 8th grade.

As for the high-school students, the I.E.A. data compare only the top 5 percent of students in all countries in advanced mathematics. Hence our best are being compared with their best, and again the comparison is entirely legitimate.

I rather suspect Mr. Botstein just doesn’t think anyone should make comparisons, at least not unless the results are flattering. A few educators may agree. But practically no one else does.

For undiluted tendentiousness, though, consider Mr. Botstein’s criticism of the use of quotations in “What Works.” (These, incidentally, are especially admired overseas for providing a historical and philosophical anchor for the findings of contemporary social science.) He actually faults us for taking quotations out of context. Yet that is the definition of a quotation--a passage pulled from its original context and allowed to stand on its own.

What has happened to Mr. Botstein’s own oft-stated enthusiasm for greater historical and cultural perspective in education--something his private, liberal-arts college claims to supply for its 800 mostly privileged students?

And whatever happened to his sense of humor? The quotes we selected typically and humorously identify concerns or insights from previous centuries that parallel our own. Yet Mr. Botstein treats them in a mean and patronizing manner.

His fundamental purpose, of course, is political. He obviously doesn’t like the present Administration. He thinks the federal government should be judged in the field of education only by what it spends on direct-service programs, not by the quality of the research it supports or the information it supplies.

It is interesting to note that even individuals and groups normally at each other’s throats over the nature and extent of other federal activities in education tend to agree on the worth of federally sponsored research, statistics, and dissemination. By breaking with this consensus, Mr. Botstein puts himself outside a pasture big enough to contain both the National Education Association and the Heritage Foundation, just for starters.

Yet even as he demands that the federal government prove its bona fides by spending more, Mr. Botstein admits--could this have been an oversight?--that it would be well ''to make real the kind of teaching of science, English, and history that ‘What Works’ argues correctly would be a good thing.” Indeed it would. But the prospects of this happening are undermined a lot more by attacks on the wisdom and credibility of the ideas themselves than by year-to-year fluctuations in federal appropriations.

We obviously don’t agree with him about the necessity of more money across the board or about who should supply it. We tend to think that a nation that next year will spend upwards of $4,000 per pupil in public funds for public education--a tripling in constant dollars in three decades--is already investing pretty heavily and might reasonably concern itself with the returns on that investment.

The more important point, however, is that lots of folks who don’t agree with us about the federal budget nevertheless found ''What Works” to be a substantial and worthwhile endeavor on its own terms. They tend to be people who believe that knowledge makes a difference; that research can actually improve practice; and that what adults do with and for children influences how much and how well those children learn. Too bad Mr. Botstein isn’t one of them.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 1986 edition of Education Week