Elevating the American Education Debate

Reducing the American education debate to absurdity

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Educational policy discussions of late have taken a decidedly dichotomous turn: on-off; good-bad; pass-fail; left-right. The all-or-nothing conversations on how to develop a single comparable measure of the quality of American schools seem to have reached a pinnacle. A current favorite among policymakers in Indiana, where we both work, is a prime example: Schools receive a letter grade from the state: A to F. Failing schools get an F, and great schools get an A. But many Hoosier educators are deeply suspicious of these reductive grading methods.

And as we recently learned, even champions of this model weren’t convinced by the results. We are referring to Tony Bennett, the former state superintendent in Indiana (and later Florida), who allegedly worked with his staff to change the grading formula so that an Indianapolis charter school, started and funded by a wealthy political donor, would not be cast in an unfavorable light. By way of exoneration, the official report commissioned by the state indicated that the grade changes, applied consistently to all relevant schools, were “an attempt to save the credibility of the new accountability model.” But the fact that the changes made last fall came to light only after the Associated Press broke the story this summer leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

—Jonathan Bouw

Sadly, Indiana’s adjusted grades are just one example of the problems that manifest when a highly complex social system is boiled down to a single measure.

For the record, we study and often advocate large-scale assessments in education, the very kind used to determine school grades in Indiana. And since we are in full-disclosure mode, we also want to go on record with the following: As educational evaluation and assessment researchers in Indiana, we agree with Tony Bennett. The charter school that sparked changes to the grading formula was most likely not as bad as its initial C grade implied, and it very likely deserved an A. Fortunately, Mr. Bennett personally knew the school and was familiar with its commendable work. The rub here is that there just weren’t enough resources to personally evaluate every school in Indiana so that tailored adjustments—up or down—could be made.

This case points to a larger issue: Education reformers are firmly parked (entrenched?) in one of two camps. The “schools good” camp argues that taxpayers have no right to demand a standardized accountability system that emphasizes student achievement. On the other hand, the “schools bad” camp gives every indication that there is an easy way to hold schools accountable. We contend that the devolution of education policy discussions into binary arguments (good vs. bad) parallels other charged policy debates in America (guns, health care, and entitlements).

Yet, the education discourse is particularly troubling because we have abundant high-quality data to inform the conversation and to evaluate schools. One caveat, though: We argue emphatically that the data that fuel these debates are fundamentally error-prone. And any data-driven evaluation is also subject to error. Consequently, there is no magic formula to control for all the complexities inherent in systems of schooling. It might be somewhat puzzling, then, that reformers in both camps are nearly religious in their beliefs. But we believe an explanation for this seeming zealotry falls into three broad, overlapping categories.

They’re overstating it. In part, radicals on both sides don’t really believe what they are saying. According to a close colleague, a state education commissioner recently blamed obstacles to implementing a new teacher-evaluation system on the poor quality of the state’s principals. When our colleague asked what percentage of administrators was truly unable to implement these systems, the schools chief sheepishly estimated that it was around 10 percent to 25 percent. You don’t need a statistical test to know that’s different from a majority. Do some schools need to improve tremendously? Are some of our K-12 schools world-class? Based on volumes of readily available data, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding yes, and many participants on both sides of the schools-good, schools-bad debate will admit this in private, off-the-record conversations. It just doesn’t fit their political strategies to admit it publicly.

They’re not overstating it. Conversely, many advocates on both sides of the good-bad debate are true believers. As an example, a schools-bad advocate contacted us recently regarding our perspective on Indiana’s “poor” performance on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. This person also wanted to know our thoughts on closing the international achievement gap. His disappointment was clear when we shared Indiana’s strong results—Hoosiers outperformed even Finland in mathematics. Our concern was that the actual results didn’t fit the story that he wanted to tell. Questioning the TIMSS results is certainly reasonable, but not because the facts weren’t commensurate with the advocate’s understanding of the world. Instead, TIMSS results are only one indicator of a very complex educational system.

The not-overstating-it camp worries us, as they are apt to implement misguided and misapplied reforms and stick by them long after signs emerge that they aren’t working as intended. Or worse, they quietly adjust the system until the world looks the way it should. And as reasonable as corrections to a system where some good schools fail and some bad schools pass may be, we are particularly worried that it takes friends in high places to motivate corrective action for a good school that looks bad.

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There are no moderates left in American political life. We admit a cliche, but would a researcher, politician, or policymaker with a more considered approach affix a single grade to a complex education system? Or ignore data-based evidence that measures widely accepted outcomes? We’ve worked with many education experts who appreciate the complexities of our schools and realize that every school can be improved. They also understand that the types of changes needed in high-performing schools are probably qualitatively different from those in low-performing schools. Perhaps because the loudest voices are the ones that tend to offer the most extreme positions, moderate reformers simply aren’t included in the broader public debate on public education.

How do moderate reformers make themselves heard in the radical fracas that dominates popular and policy discourse? We see this point as fundamental to addressing the real issues that plague American public education through research and evidence-based reform. One possibility, as we see it, is for these moderates to speak up and to be present in the media. Not as defenders of the status quo (which, by the way, we must acknowledge as academics is our public image). Instead, effective moderate reformers can act as champions for cool-headed, dispassionate research and analysis that lauds our achievements and acknowledges our problems. Universities and some think tanks are home to many first-class moderate advocates of education reform, but these people need to wade into admittedly choppy waters where education reform is debated and risk speaking out to get attention for the “radical middle.”

Kahlil Gibran once wrote “a little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” Moderate reformers need to push into the oft-uncomfortable limelight and start to deflect attention away from the schools-good, schools-bad zealots and their extreme positions.

Vol. 33, Issue 06, Pages 28, 32

Published in Print: October 2, 2013, as Schools Good, Schools Bad
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