The Cruel Irrelevance of Education Reform

Frederik deBoer points to a good piece by Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert, on the difficulties of applying Finland’s education methodology to the United States.  Unfortunately, even if we do everything right, we’re unlikely to duplicate Finland’s success:

Research on what explains students’ measured performance in school remains mixed. A commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership. In other words, up to two-thirds of what explains student achievement is beyond the control of schools, i.e., family background and motivation to learn.

That is shocking, and yet it’s unsurprising it’s rarely heard in debates about education policy.  It was a neat little refrain during the Bush era that “the facts have a liberal bias”, and in many cases this is true.  But the actual facts on education have an unmistakably conservative valence, and that is the cruel fact that there’s only so much that technocracy can do here.  Let’s leave aside the complicated questions about teaching practice and methodology and focus on the analysis of variance – even if all the teachers in America were instantly transformed into perfect teachers, headline results on education quality wouldn’t change very much.

The problem gets worse – actually figuring out what works educationally is extremely difficult.  Child psychology is a difficult field, and anyone who says they know “what works” in the classroom is trying to sell you something.  There are no solved answers to the question of what makes a good teacher, unfortunately – and standardized tests are probably a relatively poor gauge to teacher quality.  Almost certainly, in fact – if the analysis of variance is correct, it will be very difficult to pick out the teacher’s effect from their student’s results even if the test is an accurate estimator of educational attainment.  Which is a big if!

So while education reform has become the favored cause of rich American liberals these days, it’s a problem uniquely poorly-suited for solutionism and a technocratic approach.  The signals are extremely noisy, and the feedback loops between policy and effect are both slow and weak.  It does explain why educational reformers have mostly focused on crushing unions – it’s one of the only areas where they can achieve something visible, even if the causal link between union-busting and educational success is totally unclear.  But the larger drivers of poor educational results lie well outside the realm of available solutions – better educational results wouldn’t just require more charter schools or ending tenure, but a substantial overhaul of America’s social order.  I suspect that as the ambiguous results of the education reform movement continue, these donors will find more productive ways to put their money to use.

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