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Wish #5: Education Policy Based on Averages, Not Outliers

By Eduwonkette — January 20, 2009 2 min read

To celebrate this week’s historic inauguration, skoolboy and I are going to take a step back and make some big wishes – or at least predictions - for education policy in the next four years.

And I want to start this wish in an unlikely place - with a man in a Speedo. Let’s talk about Michael Phelps. Who wasn’t astonished by his eight golds, including that insane race where he touched out his competitor by a hundredth of a second? All over the country, there are age group swimmers, probably some of them putting laps in as you read this, who want to swim as fast as Phelps. Perhaps some of them will emulate his breakfast diet after practice today: three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise, two cups of coffee, one five-egg omelet, one bowl of grits, three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar, and three chocolate-chip pancakes.

Americans love outliers. The quick, the talented, the beautiful – we like to read stories about them, watch them on TV, and aspire to be like them. Up to a point, that’s all for the good.

But education policy has taken this fawning adoration to a new level. Rather than appreciating the good work outlier schools do but realizing that public policy must be crafted for mere mortals, some hold up outliers as evidence that all schools can reach a particular standard. Consider Joel Klein and Al Sharpton’s remarks in a recent Wall Street Journal piece:

Dismissing the potential of schools to substantially boost minority achievement, as is now fashionable in some Democratic circles, is ultimately little more than a recipe for defeatism….High-performing urban charter schools such as the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools are showing that minority students can close the achievement gap if given access to high-quality instruction.

So what are Klein and Sharpton saying here? Their argument is essentially: 1) Some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting exceptional results, 2) If some schools with high concentrations of minority and poor students are getting good results, poverty must not affect academic achievement - at least not in ways that can’t be overcome by good schools, and 3) If some schools can get exceptional results in spite of the challenges their students face, all schools should be able to.

I won’t belabor how flawed this logic is - because at the end of the day, it is just crazy talk. We don’t expect the other 99.9% of swimmers to be able to do what Michael Phelps can, and a swim coach that set out to reach that goal for his swimmers would be sorely disappointed. And we don’t infer that disabilities like Phelps’ ADHD can be overcome by all because one man did so. Few would disagree with the previous two sentences. But it seems that when we step into the education policy arena, we too often check our brains at the door.

So Wish #5 is a simple one: Please, dear policymakers, don’t craft your policies – or your expectations about the effects of policies – based on outlier schools or teachers.

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