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Bruno: Education Is Not A Morality Play

4067099731_05da0835d3Education is not Paul Krugman's beat, but one of his favorite points about economic discourse applies equally well to discussions about education.

Economics, he says, is not a "morality play  in which doing what you think is right is also the magic elixir that solves all problems."

We should think the same way about education.

An education policy we prefer - or even the policy we think is best - is probably  not going to have only desirable effects. Nor is it likely to positively impact every single one of the problems facing education. If a pundit is telling a story to the effect that their preferred policy is going to cure everything that ails American education, we should probably suspect wishful thinking.

You might think such wishful thinking is extremely rare but in fact it's quite common, at least implicitly.

For example, ConnCAN's new report implies that by implementing the right policies - presumably their preferred policies - the state of Connecticut can not only raise student achievement but actually close entirely achievement gaps between students from different income groups or racial backgrounds in a mere 8 years.

And it's not just reformers who mistake their favorite policies for magic elixirs. It's not unusual to see critics of NCLB claim that repealing the law would bring big benefits to new teacher recruitment and teacher job satisfaction, for instance. And the Chicago Teachers Union recently defended arts education as likely to significantly boost - among other things - math scores.

Of course, it's always possible that some particular policy really would have a lot of different benefits in a lot of different areas. Too often, though, education commentators overstate the virtues of their position out of a combination of wishful thinking and the defensiveness that results from a highly partisan debate environment.

If everyone was just a little more forthcoming about the possible shortcomings of their positions, the dialogue might be more productive. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Smart thinking, here....

This is called "false equivalence" by media critics:

"And it's not just reformers who mistake their favorite policies for magic elixirs. It's not unusual to see critics of NCLB claim that repealing the law would bring big benefits to new teacher recruitment and teacher job satisfaction, for instance."

The "reform" sector's hallmark has been promoting its faddish ideas as miracle solutions guaranteed to work instant magic. Look at the current gushing about the latest snake-oil fad, Rocketship schools -- barely different from the gushing about the snake-oil fad of 15 years ago, for-profit Edison Schools.

The "reform" sector's critics occasionally say things would be better without the oppressive dictates of NCLB and RTTT. It misleads your readers to paint that as equivalent.

@Caroline - I'm not sure whether there's "equivalence" or whether one side is worse than the other, but whatever difference there is is a pretty small difference of degree as far as I can tell. Like I said, the wishful thinking around NCLB repeal (or "local control" or whatever) seems to me to be roughly as egregious as the wishful thinking around Rocketship or whatever else. Reform critics sometimes say things would be better without "reform", just as reformers sometimes say their reforms would make things better. But also oftentimes reform critics say that repealing the "reforms" would have essentially magical effects on far-ranging issues.

The equivalence is may be approximate only, but it is real. And it's not even limited to the reform/reform critic dichotomy.

Well, I've been following ed reform since pretty early on -- since before there WAS really a resistance, and I have to say since probably well before you were. Back in that time, it was all gush-hype-miracle coming from the ed reform side and the susceptible press.

It was years before there was a visible group of critics, and years before they started to hit back (to a far, far smaller degree) with some "things will be great when the stifling hand of the oppressors is lifted"-type comments.

And note Alexander's post on the incredible amazing miracle of giving all kids laptops, which entirely, resoundingly bears me out. I couldn't have backed up my own comments better myself.

Of course, some of this is due to the fact that the "reform" sector really DOES work miracles with its outreach/messaging/propaganda. It has vast amounts of money to do that, and piggybacks on the right-wing think tanks' ultra-powerful propaganda mechanism. So their tiniest utterances have great reach, while ed reform critics until Diane Ravitch were marginalized and ignored, shoved into the "sphere of deviance" (Google it).

No, the "reform" sector OWNS the "miracles performed by saints" messaging. It's simply not valid to claim there's anything remotely equivalent coming from the resistance.

@Caroline - It seems to me that you're just defining "magic elixir salespeople" as "reformers". Edtech enthusiasts have their own vials of magic elixir to sell - and that they believe in - but they're not "reformers" in the sense of the "reform"/"reform critic" dichotomy.

But that's just to say that education discussions and debates are full of magic elixirs coming from all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons, and I haven't seen any reason to think that any particular tribe is immune from the tendency.

It was nice knowing about education is not a morality play. Your post will surely help many people to know about the same. Impressive post!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.