Facts Matter (Education Division)

Kay over at Balloon Juice recently posted on Republican whining that our president thinks governing is actually something worth doing.  I agree both with her disdain for the president’s (and, in my view) our polity’s opponents, and her argument that in fact it is important to try to solve problems before they become crises.

That’s especially true in the case of No Child Left Behind, which threatens real disruption when the day of reckoning comes (soon, in 2014) — with the heaviest impact falling, of course, on those least able to bear it.

But it is important to remember as well that Obama is no knight sans peur and sans reproche in the school reform fight.

I’m no kind of expert here, but what has consistently driven me crazy every time I’ve dipped a toe into the literature on education reform is the near-total absence of any actual reason to believe anything so called reformers say.

So without further ado, I’ll turn the critique over to Diane Ravitch,  a stalwart in chronicling and condemning the Overlords’ attempt to remake American education to some abstract vision.  In her latest, a damning review of Stephen Brill’s panagyric to the grand alliance of Wall St. viceroys and Silicon Valley technophiles, she offers this summary of the Obama administration’s approach to the reform of reform:

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

I am pretty close to an O-bot, I guess, and I do think that we have in President Obama one of the most sneakily effective drivers of real policy change to be seen around these parts for a long time.  And again, I’m nothing like an education reporter.

But my background as a science writer makes me very suspicious.  The Obama waiver seems better than the alternative of the NCLB guillotine — Obama at his worst is a meliorist, a believer in the possibility of progress through human endeavor.  But the weakness of the empirical justification for what is on offer sticks in my craw…and it reminds me that even with the best of our friends, being on the right side of the angels most of the time still means that some moments are spent on the far side of that line.  Which bears noticing, and an attempt to repair.

Oh — and this all gives me a very sketchy excuse to post a wonderful video turned up by my Swiss science writing colleague Reto Schneider.  The video documents what purports to be a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  It is…well see for yourself, and think Sokal before Sokal:

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See how great all that science-y stuff is for education and all?

For the details on the hoax (and the astonishing fact that even after being told the whole thing was a fake, some members in the audience persisted in seriously-intended questions!), check out what Reto has to say at the link above.

Image:  Antonio de Pereda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655

Explore posts in the same categories: Fundamentalisms, Who thought that was a good idea?

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