Does anyone care anything at all about education research? Anything?

This is a response to Diane Ravitch’s piece Do politicians know anything at all about schools and education? Anything? I recommend that you read it. She is right on. Seriously, if you are going to read this, you must, must go read her piece first. Not only because what she has to say is important, but also because what is written below makes little sense without the context of her article.


Dear Dr. Ravich:

I read with interest “Do politicians know anything at all about schools and education?” Not being a politician and Having earned a Ph.D. in education from Vanderbilt in 2003, I do know most of the facts in your piece. When I read it I thought, “Right, right. Right! Right!!” I’m aware of the perils of charter schools, school choice, standardized testing, teacher accountability and so on. I agreed with everything you wrote.

When I had finished, however, I was left a bit cold.

Is your intended message that our schools are fine and we don’t need to do anything? You said lots of things not to do, but you don’t say what to do.

When I re-read your piece, trying to put myself in the mindset of one of those stupid politicians or the sheep who follow them, this is what I read:

  1. Don’t try to innovate. Schools are fine as they are.
  2. Don’t try to use economics to improve or attract better teachers. Don’t pay them more. It won’t help.
  3. Don’t try to empower students or parents to go to better schools.
  4. Don’t try to use the tools that everyone outside of uses to learn and be successful.
  5. Don’t let good students go to the best schools where they can excel (unless they are able to afford to pay for private schools).
  6. Don’t try to use an objective measure to value teacher effectiveness. We have no accurate or stable way to know whether students are learning anything.
  7. Don’t worry that our students appear to compare badly to their international peers. We have world’s most successful economy. Schools don’t really seem to matter.
  8. We have lots of poor kids, but kids who aren’t poor are getting great educations.
  9. Don’t waste money trying to educate the poor. Only people with money can do well in school anyway.
  10. It doesn’t matter if kids don’t learn in schools. We need schools to hold communities together; that’s what is important.
  11. Don’t fire teachers who appear not to be effective. If we create a culture where ineffective teachers cannot expect to keep their jobs, no one will want to become a teacher.
  12. Politicians don’t pay attention to research and studies because educational research provides no tools for improving education.

You have made the case that if you care about improving schools, educational research is not the tool for it.

I’m moving to the beach.

Jay Pfaffman.

Jay Pfaffman lives in a van, down by the river, but will soon be looking for a place to park it somewhere near highway 30-A in the Florida panhandle.

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12 Responses to Does anyone care anything at all about education research? Anything?

  1. Kimi Abernathy says:

    Jay, Great response. As I read the piece I, too, was a cheerleader. However, by the time I got to number 6 about teacher effectiveness (I strongly oppose evaluation by student test scores, hell I strongly oppose testing), then international testing and then the questions about “who will fill the empty teacher spots?” ( I am tired of bad teachers and want it harder to become a teacher not easier), I was feeling pretty resistant. I am fairly conversant on most of these facts and do believe her point was perhaps the opposite of the actual take away, but, dern, this would not be a good piece to show TN legislators. Their take away would be “let’s just defund all schools and let the the wealthy send their kids to private schools.” Oh, wait, isn’t that is their plan any way. Which beach?

  2. pfaffman says:

    She’s right that the teacher accountability stuff, especially as it is in Tennessee, is very effective at demoralizing teachers and encouraging them to go elsewhere. The problem is, suggesting that it is foolhardy to try to put systems in place that do value better teachers sounds pretty stupid.

    Other reasonable measures, like just asking kids (and maybe parents) which teachers are good ones, can and will quickly be co-opted by teachers who give (perhaps metaphorical) candy to kids to get them to give evaluations. I know I always bought beer for my students before I had them fill out their evaluations. (Well, not really, but it’s a good story.)

  3. Gina Smith says:

    I disagree with your assessment, Jay, as it overgeneralizes her points. To me, she is dead on in exposing the absolute ridiculousness of most education policy, which flies in the face of research and reality. She doesn’t say, “Don’t try to improve, innovate, accomodate, etc.” She’s simply saying politicians FAIL in creating policy by refusing to acknowledge some educational realities in this country. Sometimes the truth hurts, but we’ll NEVER fix education until we are able to vocalize the REAL issues. Teachers are paddling upstream all day, every day and get nothing but, “Teachers need to be more accountable.” Many of my students come to school almost every day after having NOT eaten a reasonable meal, slept more than a few hours, or had anyone even mention homework…much less help them with it. And these are the students with only minor issues. Many more are abused, neglected, forced to care for younger siblings, move/change schools four+ times per year…the list goes on. It is unfair to expect children in those circumstances to perform at the same level as children from homes where the complete opposite conditions are present. And equally unfair to hold a teacher accountable in the exact same way for the performance of these two different types of students. I don’t have the solution, but politicians…and screwed up political policies…are far more responsible for the current problems in education than educators.

  4. pfaffman says:

    Yeah, Gina. I overgeneralized her points on purpose, as that’s what
    the people who she is ostensibly trying to communicate to would do.

    I understand that not all charter schools, or even charter schools on
    average are better than public schools, but some are. And they are one
    of the few ways that schools can try new things.

    Wouldn’t you like it if there were a way that people could know that
    you’re a better teacher than the slacker down the hall? I would. It
    doesn’t make sense to a normal person that evaluating teachers is as
    hard as it is–especially since everyone knows who the good teachers
    are.

    The problem is that if research offers no solutions, just evidence
    that damn near everything that seems like it should be a good idea
    isn’t, then WTF are politicians supposed to do?

    And, if I don’t have any solutions, what should I do? I surely don’t
    want to encourage people to be teachers.

  5. Gina Smith says:

    I don’t have a problem with charter schools.

    I don’t have a problem with teacher evaluations. I’ve been subjected to them my entire teaching career. However, no one, except my principal sees my evaluations, (which have all been very good, by the way) and there is no merit pay, or any benefit at all, associated with them.

    Politically created measures that judge teachers… a la NCLB…are inherently unfair due to the massively unlevel playing field. Teachers are better in Brentwood, TN? Of course they are, their students score much higher on standardized tests than students in rural Mississippi. That is ridiculous. The fact is, teachers in rural Mississippi probably work ten times harder, for less pay, yet are bashed and threatened with being fired because their students don’t measure up.

    My point is that educational policy, as evidenced by research, barks up the wrong tree. Schools in affluent communities aren’t “doing things right,” they have inherently educated/educable children. Their students come to school with their educational foundation already laid. They read, because they are read to. They learn 24/7 because they live in homes with educated adults, who associate with other educated adults. They have educational goals…like to graduate from college…because their parents expect them too. The reality is, teachers are only one factor in the success or failure of students, yet political policy holds them almost exclusively accountable for it. Because it can. Teachers are at the mercy of government policies. Simply because they are one of the only factors in the educational equation that can be manipulated.

    Solutions? Legislate parenting.

    • Jody says:

      Gina, you said: “The reality is, teachers are only one factor in the success or failure of students, yet political policy holds them almost exclusively accountable for it.”

      I certainly agree that teachers can’t be blamed for the success or failure of students because there are so many other factors. But, can you give me an example of how political policy holds teachers accountable for student success or failures? Tenured teachers keep their jobs no matter how good or bad they are (unless they, gasp, touch a student). As you pointed out, there are no merit raises. They may get bad press, but is that political policy?

      In my opinion, as someone who is on my local school board and who, like Jay, has a PhD in education, I think politics should get out of schooling. I was elected to the school board because of my background in education, and yet, I get no say in how the kids get educated. That’s dictated by the state and by unfunded federal mandates. Teachers are protected to the hilt, however. No one wants to say anything bad about them, and their unions (where they exist), who are backed by the government, make sure they keep their jobs.

      What’s my school board job consist of, then? Approving budgets, making policies, hiring administrators, and taking criticism from the public. That’s about it. People are needed who actually know how to do these things (short of the criticism-taking skill) — not elected because people like their faces or their unrelated background in education. The only way to do that is to get government out of schooling. The whole system is a mess, including the funding mechanism.

      And btw, I didn’t agree with a lot of what Diane Ravitch said. She used NAEP scores in ways that you cannot use them (to compare schools or states), and she must have looked at different charter school data than other studies I’ve seen. She seems to me to have an agenda, though it’s not clear what it is.

  6. George Hufflinger says:

    >”The problem is that if research offers no solutions…”

    Jay,
    Solid educational research is available, and can offer solutions, especially in the instances of economically different learners. Dr. James Catterall of UCLA has done such, including a follow up study of 12,000 learners.
    It’s unfortunate that “research” and intellectual honesty has suffered at the hands of specific financial interests, not only in education, but pharmaceuticals, agriculture, etc.

    The solutions to educational balancing among economic diversity lie within the analyses of what activities for learning one group has that another may not be able to access, and include these areas within education. The other educational route to solutions is to refer on the basics of human design – as in brain development by the use of hand skills, body coordination, basics of language acquisition within a child’s hearing range, etc. The solutions may not require an upheaval of energy.

  7. Gina Smith says:

    And, unfortunately, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to teach these days either. I’m not in the classroom any more. I’m working for Educational Talent Search, which is a federally funded program that helps underprivileged kids make it through middle and high school…then on to college. Highly unlikely I will ever go back to regular ed. Which is sad to me because I dearly loved teaching.

  8. James Smith says:

    Jay,

    I understand your position, and I agree to an extent. The thing I have noticed is that everyone involved in trying to improve our education system wants to engage in monologues, not dialogues. George Hufflinger seems to be the only one here that is talking about the one thing I was taught during my Naval career: If you are going to criticise the Commander, or the Chief, you best have a solution to the problem, not just reasons why things aren’t working. This blog misses that very important point.

    Solutions to education aren’t charter schools, making teachers accountable for test scores, or getting rid of tenure. However, solutions are found in a modification of those. For example, there is a great study on student misconceptions about science: http://assessment-ws.wikispaces.com/file/view/chemistry-misconceptions.pdf. This should be an eyeopener that should get a teacher to change how they teach. It is this last sentence that I believe we need to concentrate on: How are we teaching our material?

    In my opinion, that is the single most significant question and what needs to be done, and isn’t, is an honest dialogue with teachers to ask them what they feel they need in Professional Development and support in order to teach better. The discussion keeps going around that issue, and, in my experience, I have found that no one is really interested in engaging teachers in that discussion. I’m not talking about making them feel threatened, for they will never truly discuss their issues, but to have an honest discussion on teaching practices and how one can assist the teacher in finding the best ones to utilise in the classroom.

    The rest of the discussion should be how society, not the schoolteacher, works together so that a child doesn’t go to school hungry, or if they do, they are fed without it being a stigma because they have to come to school to get a good meal. However, that can’t be a burden one puts on the schools, Society has to take up that situation, the school should concentrate on putting the best teaching practices in front of the child. However, as I have said before, too many of us are engaging in monologues that tend to single out groups when a concerted effort is needed. I intend to make that my goal as I approach the principal leadership arena. I just hope I get hired for it.

    • pfaffman says:

      Ah, so you’re a principal. I wish you luck. You do have the potential to significantly affect the lives of everyone in your school. You’ll know who the good teachers are. Perhaps you can get rid of the bad ones. Perhaps you can convince teachers that you really do care what they want and then be able to hear them. And yes, the most effective reforms have been teacher-focused (e.g., Jersey City, or somewhere near there, 10-15 years ago).

      To remain cynical, if the societal ills you mention were to get fixed, then schools would be just fine. For the most part, schools where the societal ills you mention don’t really matter, are doing quite well. Back when I was young and naive, I wanted to make schools work in the world in which we lived, not some world that we don’t live in. I think my problem was always that the research that was done was done in some way that was unsustainable. Once you took away the extra people, the extra money, the extra technical support, the extra training, the extra attention, or whatever it was, nothing worked.

      As I think back, I realize that I had it figured out when I started grade school in 1995. At one of the first meetings I went to and heard two older grad students talking about all the great stuff they were doing, I said “You mean if you get the best teachers and you put $50,000 worth of technology and two really smart grad students into their classrooms kids will learn more? That’s great news.” That’s still true.

    • Jody says:

      Why is that that only in the teaching profession do they have to be asked how they’d like to improve? Everywhere I’ve worked, it’s my responsibility to figure out what I need to do my job better. There are budgets for professional development (I know, I’m on a school board), so why not give teachers a free hand in deciding what they want to do? I’ve been to conferences (NCTM – teachers of mathematics) where teachers are required to sign in to talks they attend in order to get “credit” back at home, because many apparently don’t go to these conferences to actually learn something. I’ve also done a good bit of teacher professional development — where someone decided that the teachers need to learn x, and I happen to be a person that knows x. And they’re all required to attend. So, why is this? It perplexes me to call it a profession and then treat them like children who don’t know any better.

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