Tuesday, March 04, 2014

School Reformers Design Hubris

A dozen years ago or so I had the opportunity to sit in on a series of regular meetings of a heterogeneous group of leading experts on various aspects of education. These were all people who had impressive records of successful pilot programs, publication, and local successes, and who were focused on bringing together theory and practice (I represented "practice" at that point), and "scaling up" their work.

From their perspective, program design to solve specific problems was essentially trivial. If they needed to design a more effective professional development program, or a new early literacy program, or a new science curriculum, they were confident that they, or someone they knew, could do it, and they had the track record to back it up.

These folks weren't on the cutting edge of "corporate reform" as we know it, but they were definitely being pulled into the New Schools Venture Fund Orbit, were certainly almost entirely dependent on Gates, Hewlett, MacArthur and other private foundation funding, and had generally come to the conclusion that the experts on scale were businesses.

Fast forwarding to today, none of these folks has, as far as I can tell, significantly expanded their influence as a result of the subsequent wave of reforms, but what is more and more clear to me is that their attitude about the trivial nature of specific problems in education became conventional wisdom to reformers, whether by coincidence or direct influence.

That is, what is really crippling reform at this point is that writing new standards turned out not to be trivial; writing whole new curricula based on those standards was not trivial, and there was never any reason to think the new tests were going to be significantly better than the old ones. Future innovation was simply assumed, as if Moore's Law applied to pedagogy.

I'm not going to try to dig up the original, but this struck me most clearly in an article about the piloting of Amplify's new tablets and software, where it was mentioned in passing that the math games on which much depended had not yet been written. Given that people have been writing math games and exercises for computers for 50 years, and I can think of none that is much more than glorified flash cards (not to say there aren't some great math tools), to just assume the "writing effective math teaching software" step seems rather foolish.

Perhaps this makes more sense if you look at it as a case of underconfidence by the reform community. That is, they've screwed up their whole agenda because of haste. The fundamental assumption was that they had to rush as much in as possible, quality be damned, before the inevitable backlash. I think they were wrong about that, and they would have been unstoppable in a grinding war of attrition, whereas their blitzkrieg has left the overextended, short on ammo, and vulnerable.

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