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The X Factor of School Reform

In case you missed it, there was a great piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the core message of which has a lot of relevance for those of us who, barely a week removed from not one but two major reports of misleading test data being used to evaluate schools and school districts, continue to search for the simplest way of evaluating what may be the most complex undertaking in the professional world — creating a challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential learning environment in which all children can learn.

The Times article had nothing to say about school reform — it was about the Fed’s inability to decide whether to stimulate the economy now or later. And it was about how even in a social science flush with quantitative data, the “social” aspect of the science — i.e., human behavior — is sufficiently complex and nonlinear to make certainty a chimera. “One point I always make to my graduate students,” said Robert Solow, a Noel Prize winner and MIT professor, “is never sound more certain than you are.”

Would that such caution were commonplace in our current conversations about education reform!

Of course, the message is not that economics is a boundless free-for-all discipline that uses numbers to hide its own guesswork — charges that are sometimes made to rebut the growing push in education circles to embrace a greater use of student information to guide adult decision-making — but one message seems clear: beware the worship of “data” in your search for certainty, as long as human beings are part of the equation. “The entire question of how emotion will change people’s behavior is pretty much outside the standard model of economics,” said Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke. “Pride is not in the model. Fear is not in the model. Revenge is not in the model. Even simple things like disenchantment of people who are fired from their jobs — the model doesn’t account for how devastating that experience can be.”

Reform leaders, are you listening?

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Judicial Activism & the Yelp-ification of Voting?

As someone who never travels without his pocket U.S. Constitution, I loved that yesterday’s New York Times forced me to revisit the two sections that deal with Judicial and Executive power — Articles III and II, respectively.

The article about judicial power was a detailed analysis of the first five years of the U.S. Supreme Court under John Roberts’ leadership. (Spoiler alert: it was really conservative). What interests me more, though, is the ongoing tension between the lofty principles of our common law system (in which our law evolves over time, thanks to the wisdom and restraint of judges who interpret it) and the reality of how those principles get played out in real time (i.e., to the victor go the spoils, stare decisis — or the rule that judges aren’t supposed to go against prior precedent — be damned).

Now that the Court’s makeup favors a conservative bent, the left is up in arms and crying foul.  And yet this is exactly what happened a few generations ago, under the Earl Warren-led Court of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, under Warren’s leadership the left-leaning Court forged myriad new doctrines regarding civil rights and civil liberties and the very nature of the political system (Thank God!). And so, although I personally disagree with the direction this Court is taking us, I don’t see behavior that runs afoul of the Constitution. It’s an imperfect system, but you can’t only support judicial muscularity when it serves your own purposes. (On a related note, I have a new book coming out later this year on the First Amendment and how our understanding of it has evolved over time. Want to reserve an advance copy?)

Far more complicated was the recent New Yorker article about voting systems, and about how the U.S. lags behind other countries in its efforts to provide a fairer system. The antediluvian nature of our system will become even more pronounced when the stodgy old Brits, of all people, hold a May 2011 referendum on how Britain elects its leaders, likely resulting in an abandonment of the “first-past-the-post” system whereby whoever has the most votes wins. As the article points out, this sort of system only really makes sense if you always have two candidates. But anytime you have three or more, it’s a pretty lousy way to capture the true will of the people. And, not surprisingly, of democracies without any significant past era of British influence, only Nepal has chosen to elect its leaders this way.

As the article points out, the misbehavior of voting schemes in general has been known to social scientists since the mid-twentieth century. “That was when Kenneth Arrow, an economist at Stanford, examined a set of requirements that you’d think any reasonable voting system could satisfy, and proved that nothing can meet them all when there are more than two candidates. So designing elections is always a matter of choosing a lesser evil.”

So what should we do instead? Interestingly, one idea put forth is to rate our candidates the same way we rate restaurants or books online — by rating them across the range of a 4- or 5-point scale — and by using the 2000 election as an example of how it might work. “If a voter likes Nader best, and would rather have Gore than Bush, he or she can approve Nader and Gore but not Bush.” Both schemes give voters more options, and “would elect the candidate with the most over-all support, rather than the one preferred by the largest minority.”

I’m not saying I recommend this, but it’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? And just to provide some perspective, it’s not like changing how we vote in this country is a foreign concept. In fact, nearly one-fourth of our country’s total amendments to the Constitution (or 6 out of 27) have been about changing how we vote — and who can do it.

Which leads to a Monday trivia question — can you name the six voting-related amendments without looking? If you can (and we’re going strictly honor code here), I’ll send you a pocket Constitution of your very own. . .

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John Wooden, Barack Obama & Why Smart People Are Stoopid

This week’s Frank Rich column may not be about education policy, but it might as well be.

Writing about the president’s handling of the BP oil spill, Rich believes Obama’s “most conspicuous flaw is his unshakeable confidence in the collective management brilliance of the best and the brightest he selected for his White House team — “his abiding faith in the judgment of experts,” as Joshua Green of The Atlantic has put it.

This is the primary issue I have with the leading voices of education reform today. I’ve heard Joel Klein suggest “we know how to do this” — referring to comprehensive education reform — when the truth is all we know how to do is move the needle on student test scores, not transform an apartheid education system that relies on one method of instruction for the poor, and another for the privileged. I’ve heard Michelle Rhee assert that “collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.” And I’ve grown weary of the myraid other voices who confidently participate in a groupthinkian rush to the illusory Altar of Certainty, long before we have in place the necessary metrics for a much more finely calibrated understanding of whether our schools are giving children what they really need — a balanced comprehensive education that teaches them to use their minds well over the long haul.

It seems fitting, then, that Rich’s piece would appear in a day the Times’ Sports page offered its paean to the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden, our country’s greatest-ever coach, an exceedingly humble man who always considered himself a teacher first — and a molder of men first, and basketball players second.

Coach Wooden was known for many memorable maxims, many of which — like “Be quick, but don’t hurry” — could helpfully guide our current reform efforts if heeded. But it’s another Woodenism I thought of as I finished Rich’s piece about Obama’s Best and Brightest: “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”

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