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Bruno: Andy Rotherham's "Green Lantern Theory" of Ed Reform

A560b90e-20dc-4cd7-b6ed-977c6010d296Way back in 2006 Matthew Yglesias coined the phrase "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics" to describe the idea that the only thing preventing us from effectively using our military to control global affairs is a lack of willpower.

On this account, the failure of a military intervention to achieve its goals can always be blamed on a lack of resolve from military leaders, politicians, or the general public. Yglesias' goal, of course, was to highlight that this sort of foreign policy thinking is fallacious because no amount of willpower can turn a bad plan into a good one; even the most willful and resolute leaders are doomed to failure if a military intervention is based on lousy plans.

I bring this up because Andrew Rotherham's recent commentary on the growth of NCLB waivers looks to me suspiciously like an example of a "Green Lantern Theory of Education Reform."

In a post titled "No Child Left Behind - The Problem Is Not The Policy, It's Us" he concludes that the problem isn't NCLB's proficiency and accountability requirements, it's our collective political will:

Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools.  None of the people cheering or jeering today’s article would put up for a moment with having their own kids in schools that couldn’t generally meet the proficiency bars states have established. That’s something they quietly agree on. This is about other people’s children and what’s good enough for them. And that, rather than any one feature of the policy, is probably the root of the problem.

Put aside the fact that virtually all parents are, in fact, currently "put[ting] up...with having their own kids in schools" that don't get 100% of students up to proficiency, as NCLB requires.* (Virtually no such schools exist.) Rather, the more important fallacy is the idea that NCLB and its proficiency requirements could work if only we wanted it badly enough.

Not only is there no evidence whatsoever that this is the case, it's not even possible to prove this theory wrong. After all, no matter how lousy the policy and how hard we try to implement it, after a failure we can always say, "Well, if only we'd tried just a little bit harder..." In other words, Rotherham's Green Lantern Theory of NCLB failure is basically unfalsifiable.

Ultimately, there's a clearer, simpler explanation available for why schools aren't meeting NCLB's requirements: NCLB, as written, doesn't offer either worthwhile, realistic goals or plausible ways of achieving them.

If you're reading this, you probably don't need me to rehash in detail all of the reasons we might think NCLB was a flawed plan and you've probably got opinions about how it can be improved. Hopefully NCLB's original advocates can join in that discussion so that we can develop better policy, rather than trying to explain why, failure not withstanding, NCLB was actually a great plan all along.

*I realize that, as Rotherham points out, NCLB includes a few provisions that mean the "real" proficiency requirement is slightly lower and required over a slightly longer timeframe than we are usually explicit about, but these details are pretty tiny to matter much in these discussions; they don't make NCLB's proficiency goals any more achievable in practice.  - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Heh, that couldn’t be more true. The sad thing is, I think these people genuinely believe they’re doing amazing work.

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