Getting at first principles in the education debate

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48 Responses

  1. “I worry, I guess, that Kain is taking too much of a “kitchen sink” approach. Reforms need to be informed by empirical research (or at least a strong sense that they will achieve one’s normative goals).”

    I agree and have said the same. I don’t like the idea of using our children as lab rats where education programs try out new methodologies based on flimsy research.Report

    • Mike – what about kids in truly failing schools, in impoverished neighborhoods where there are no good options? Do you think their parents view a chance at attending KIPP as a way of making their children “lab rats”?Report

      • I think desperation breeds a willingness to consider anything. I am increasingly convinced though that the traditional format is what is best and when that fails it’s often because of ancillary factors. The necessity of ‘reform’ depends on what role you believe schools should play in the lives of students.Report

      • Empirically, upward mobility has always been a multi-generational process: people who are living in absolute poverty value steady income and consistent employment; the middle class values ownership; the upper class values leisure and intellectual existence.

        This characterization is obviously oversimplified and unfair to outliers, but any educational system we devise should keep in mind these realities and create a balance between what the members of a particular community may desire and quixotic notions of egalitarianism.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        “[W]hat about kids in truly failing schools, in impoverished neighborhoods where there are no good options?”

        I think there are plenty of people who believe that there is no such thing as a failing school. Only failing parents who fail to make their kids care about education.Report

    • Seems to me we’d do best asking parents in those communities if they want their children to be participants in such “experimentation.” If they do, then let them and vice versa.Report

      • Elias,

        Are you talking about on a student-by-student basis or as some kind of community-wide referendum?Report

        • Whatever would be more practicable. It’s not like I’ve got a policy proposal sitting in front of me here. Not to be cute, but when I wrote that I was intending it to be taken as a “first principle.”

          (I would guess, though, that a student-by-student system would be very difficult to implement.)Report

          • Typically big process changes are implemented on a tiered program. Start with a classroom, move on to a grade level, then implement school wide. Last year I learned about a local school here that implemented ‘looping’ using this roll-out process. It worked well. Other schools go all-in like my old high school which implemented a school-wide House system about 10 years ago.

            The latter approach is more apt for failure in my book but occassionally worked out.Report

            • I’m just intuitively inclined for the former approach that you’ve outlined. Better to slow roll something this fundamental so problems can arise before it’s too late to make necessary changes (hopefully).Report

              • And that is a fine process. The problem of course lies in the amount of research before it ever gets to a classroom. Example: An education al think tank comes up with some new way to teach multiplication. They convince a school administrators to try it out in a 3rd grade classroom. At the end of the year it is proven to be a complete failutre and scrapped. But what about the kids in the room? That one-year math deficit they now have because they were guinea pigs could literally haunt them until college.

                It’s a tough call. We test new drugs on people all the time and some of them die because they skipped another drug to be part of a promising but ultimately failed clinical trial. But those are adults. Do we gamble with our kids’ futures in the same way?Report

              • This is where I think opt-in is rather important. As I mentioned in a comment to EDK the other day, I find experimentation in assigned schools to be (potentially) horrifying. But I could be sold on an experiment with my (future kid). Take a chance, monitor it closely, then pull them out if there’s a problem.

                There are also opportunities with regard to summer schooling. Allow parents that take part in it – if they’re dissatisfied – to send their kids to a catch-up summer school class.Report

              • greginak in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

                This seems like an ominous view of an education experiment. A new idea wouldn’t get into a class without some evidence and theory behind. There is also informed consent so parent’s would have to be aware of what is happening so its likely parents will be keeping an eye on progress. Its hard to any sort of experiment on people without a lot of safeguards, allowing people to drop out at any time and monitoring it. It seems pretty unlikely a new procedure would leave a child totally screwed at the end of year. It would most likely be a comparison between did he new idea do better then the old one, not whether it worked at all.Report

              • As a parent of two school-age kids I would disagree. Nobody gives us a chance to opt-out of anything and my kids certainly aren’t taught inthe same way I was. My wife and I are smart enough to augment at home but not every parent is going to even recognize there is a need to.Report

              • Historically, this is quite true. If there is a mountain of evidence to explain the superiority of cluster math over algorithmic, or spiralling over mastery, I’m not sure I’ve seen it.Report

              • Which actually gets me back to the importance of opt-in. Someone could explain to me cluster math, and I would know pretty quickly that I would prefer my kid be taught the traditional way. But a class or school that explained to me incremental mathematics would get a different response. Now, maybe my instincts are wrong, but I’d still take them over my kid being forced into spiralling or cluster math.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith says:

        Sure. I agree with this. If a community wants more schooling options, they should be able to get those options.Report

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    Shawn, this is a fantastic piece. It deserves a lengthier response and I will get one to you.Report

    • I thought this was a great post, too. I don’t really have much to add to the conversation — Shawn’s prescription looked great to me — but I can say that this article is an attempt to steer the conversation in a more, I think, useful direction.Report

  3. Rufus F. says:

    This is a bit tangental from the post or Kain’s discussions, but I always wonder when people theorize about how to educate other people just how much time they’ve spent analyzing how they themselves learn things. Because, often, they’ll propose something (to me actually) as an iron-clad theory “based on our research into teaching” and I think, okay, but if you were trying to learn this subject, would this work for you?Report

    • And to expand on Rufus’ point, how many different techniques are manageable?Report

      • Right, well, at the core, most of us learn most things by repeated, focused attention and practice on a nearly daily basis. If you spend 15 minutes a day repeating a simple task with your full attention, you’ll most likely pick it up, and that’s true whether we’re talking about playing the clarinet or learning the Latin roots. The teacher really has about three tasks: making sure the students aren’t completely miserable doing that (which can be really hard if they’re worrying about the exams), asking plenty of questions to figure out where they’re having problems and help them through those problems, and keeping on them to do their work.

        It was a bit off-putting for me when I first stepped into the role to find out how much they want you to be an authority figure for them. It makes them feel safe and, frankly, some of them seem to have been lacking in any sort of guidance. This is why I’m skeptical whenever people will say, “This is a new generation and we have to hear them when they say that they don’t think or learn the way we did!” Okay, maybe, but I’ve had really good success with treating them as if they were like myself.Report

        • There’s certainly probably an attention-span deficit with kids today based on the internet and the way our brains are being rewired BUT it doesn’t mean we should make allowances for it. Their future employers won’t.Report

        • Dan H. in reply to Rufus F. says:

          This is what is really interesting to me about the education debate. Learning is pretty simple and straightforward as a practical matter. We by and large know what works and do it every day. The real question is motivation.

          There are four types of students:

          1) Intrinsically motivated students who preform – Students who learn because they want to learn for the thing in itself.

          2) Extrinsically motivated students who preform – Students who learn because they want the grades, status, fear of parents, maintain eligibility for the team etc.

          3) Intrinsically motivated students who do not preform – Students who fail to learn despite intrinsic interest (Students who need to be taught, students with learning disabilities etc.)

          4) Extrinsically motivated students who do not preform – Students who fail to learn because the school cannot or will not offer them rewards they desire for learning.

          1 and 2 are really not who we worry about when talking about education reform. 3 can be solved by good teaching and are generally the subject of reform proposals. 4 are largely ignored and routinely confused with 3.Report

  4. Ryan says:

    And they will ensure teachers are given due process before being terminated (a basic democratic right that is overlooked with the trite “they protect bad teachers” argument).

    Umm… since when is any kind of due process any kind of right before being terminated from employment? The only industries which have even the barest hint of legal process before termination are unionized ones, and that’s a matter of contract, not law. At any other job you care to name, an employer can fire you for any reason other than a few specifically enumerated ones (religion, race, gender, etc.) or for no reason at all (in theory anyway). It’s called “at-will employment,” and it obtains in just about every industry in just about every state, and there’s no reason to think that this violates any kind of “basic democratic right.”

    Arguing that job security is an important benefit of public sector employment is one thing, but you’re transforming that into a broader, more basic claim. I’m unwilling to let that slip by without objection.Report

    • Shawn Gude in reply to Ryan says:

      Glad you didn’t let it slip by—it’s an important point. And you’re right that few employees are conferred this type of protection. That’s the problem. I don’t see due process as merely an “important benefit.” I see it as an extension of democratic protections to the workplace. Also: When one is determining if something is desirable from a normative standpoint, whether it’s widely granted or accepted is rather immaterial. What matters is if one believes it *is* is a basic democratic right. I do.Report

      • RTod in reply to Shawn Gude says:

        Ryan –

        I’m not sure what, exactly, to think of this response – and so I have to ask what exactly you mean by a right to due process prior to termination? What is the due process you are referring to, and how would it be implemented? If there were enough cause for alarm about an employee putting an organization at risk – sexual harassment issues, for example – but no smoking gun proof, would an employer be forced to retain the services of the employee? Would a company be allowed to terminate an executive if they determined that the person they hired was, from a management style perspective, a bad fit?

        I have a gajillion thoughts about your claim, but want to make sure I know exactly what it is you are saying.

        Would you mind expanding?Report

      • RTod in reply to Shawn Gude says:

        Sorry, I menat to address this to Shawn.Report

      • Ryan Davidson in reply to Shawn Gude says:

        Well… you’re wrong. You may want it to be a basic democratic right, but at the moment, it is not recognized as such by the American legal system.Report

      • Ryan Davidson in reply to Shawn Gude says:

        And really, I’m not sure you understand the implications of your argument. Creating some kind of due process right with respect to employment termination would be an absolute disaster to implement.

        Furthermore, it is pretty universally recognized that with a very few, very limited exceptions, the Constitution does not restrict the actions of private individuals. So while you might be able to argue that public sector employees should have some of these rights and have something you hang your hat on, there really isn’t any law or legal theory you can reference for private employers.Report

        • greginak in reply to Ryan Davidson says:

          All public employers and most private ones have policies that have to be followed. In the public sphere you usually cannot just fire someone without some process. As an employee that is a nice thing, it makes complete sense why unions want that kind of thing. Nobody wants to be completely at the mercy of being fired for the wrong look, wrong religions or political beliefs. It may not be in the constitution but it a sensible, humane thing for workers to want.Report

          • Ryan Davidson in reply to greginak says:

            Employers HR policies are in place as matters of best practice, not as matters of law. They “have to be followed” as a matter of choice, not as a matter of law.

            No one can be fired, public or private sector, for their religious or political beliefs (except for people that work for religious or political organizations, obviously), because there is a law against that. But other than that, we’re looking at a pretty narrow range of protections. Saying that the right to some kind of process before being fired is a “basic democratic right” may be something that you want, but it’s not part of the current legal system. It just isn’t.Report

            • greginak in reply to Ryan Davidson says:

              There was actual verified story here of a woman being fired for having an Obama sticker on her car during the election. People can be fire for whatever reason if they have no recourse. Best practice does to some degree equal “so we don’t get sued” for some sort of discrimination.Report

        • A “democratic” right would be different from a human or natural right. Mushing them together makes a mush.

          We see freedom of religion as a natural/human right, but trial by jury would be a “democratic” right, one established by political consensus. Although both are constitutional rights in America, we would not say that countries that don’t use the jury system are violating human rights. Freedom of religion, though, we see as unalienable.

          One might argue that “right to work” states in America violate human rights, but that’s quite a stretch, even in the elastic world of modern “rights talk.” Although that will not stop some people from trying. 😉Report

          • Will in reply to tom van dyke says:

            This is wildly off-topic, but I’ve never understood the distinction between “human” or “natural” rights and democratic ones. Outside the realm of theology, don’t all rights ultimately rest on democratic consensus?

            That doesn’t mean we should expand the scope of what we call “rights” will-nilly, but I have a hard time understanding the distinction you’re trying to draw, Tom.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Will says:

              Have you heard those people talking about “right” and “wrong”?

              They should just cut to the chase and say “to my benefit” and “to your benefit”.Report

            • tom van dyke in reply to Will says:

              Yes, Will, there’s an argument to be made that without God, all rights are political, conventional, alienable: rights are whatever we negotiate with each other and/or our governments.

              “Natural” rights theory would argue that rights exist before government is even established. And attempts like the UN Declaration of Rights argue that at least some rights are universal and not dependent on time, place or style of government. I tried to illustrate this with the difference between freedom of religion and trial by jury. Trial by jury is not claimed as a universal human right, it’s merely a feature of the American system.

              Rights theory is much too big for a comments section, and not entirely relevant to this one. However, “democratic” rights rather jumped off the cyberpage as more muddle than clarity. They exist, but have no claim to universality, i.e., to being human rights.Report

  5. Trumwill says:

    There are some good arguments to be made for teacher autonomy. There are some good arguments to be made for a due-process regime for termination. But it strikes me that arguing for both of these things, in tandem, is problematic. Especially when you throw in a third argument against assessments (or applying importance thereto).

    I am sympathetic to making it more difficult to fire teachers that are ankle-chained to Direct Instruction. But the more autonomy you give them, the more important it becomes to evaluate their performance and/or act on that evaluation sooner rather than later.Report

  6. In my experience as an educator, the students who learn the best are those who’ve been taught under the greatest number of methodological frameworks. Students learn best from being exposed to as many different ways of presenting the same material as possible. I’d suggest methodological diversity as an educational ethos.Report

  7. Pat Cahalan says:

    > There are few areas in which outsiders with so little
    > knowledge arrogantly claim so much perceptiveness.

    Try working in IT for a while. You’d be amazed how many people think they know what they’re talking about.

    To be fair to the G.P., a fair share of tech people don’t know what they’re talking about, either.Report

    • Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      To be fair to the G.P., a fair share of tech people don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

      You beat me to the punch on that one. Also, IT people give as good as they get with what they think they know about business.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      Aerospace technology is another such area.

      Actually, though…every area is one in which outsiders with little knowledge will arrogantly claim perceptiveness. That’s because there are a great many people whose reasoning goes “I’m smart, and I thought about this, and smart people who think about things always find the right answer, therefore my idea is the right one and anyone who disagrees is either stupid or lying”.Report

  8. DensityDuck says:

    “[C]ritical citizenship would be prioritized over docile acceptance of the status quo.”

    And, of course, we’d have to make sure that they were the right kind of critical citizens who had the right ideas about things. Because, you know, there’s “being critical of the status quo” and then there’s being dangerously recalcitrant towards understanding important fundamental aspects of society, right?Report

  9. Murali says:

    His outsized influence over education policy causes me consternation not solely due to my policy disagreements with him, but because his actions are an affront to political equality.

    So it seems that political equality is the altar at which you sacrifice all other aspects of justice?Report