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John Thompson: Jal Mehta's Ten Inconvenient Truths

MehtaJal Mehta, in the Education Week blog Learning Deeply, discusses five inconvenient truths held by both reformers and education traditionalists. I'm not sure why he only mentions five minor blind spots held by reformers.

Perhaps Mehta is being diplomatic or maybe his excellent Allure of Order did such a great job of chronicling the failures of accountability-driven reformers that he didn’t see the need to repeat its diagnoses of their shortcomings. 

Frankly, I think Mehta has chosen a rhetorical path halfway between reformers and their opponents, and he believes he can do the greatest good by sticking to it. Metha is not playing politics; but he seeks consensus. 

I respect that. 

My five inconvenient truths ignored by reformers would be, first, high stakes testing and, second, increased segregation are inherently destructive, so reformers need a very strong reason for imposing either.

Third, education is an act of love and trusting relationships are the key but, fourth, the reformers’ politics of destruction and the demonization of teachers and unions undermine those relationships.

Fifth, reformers should have accepted the burden of proving that their policies would do more good than harm. 

Mehta’s critique of traditionalists, however, is profound.   Hardly a day passes when I don’t wrestle with his “Inconvenient Truth 1: Longstanding institutions are not good at doing things other than what they were initially designed to do.” Mehta’s insight applies to all social institutions, not just education.

The inertia of traditional institutions must be considered in conjunction with Inconvenient Truth 4: Traditional governance is itself a big part of the problem. Mehta would like to see a more professionalized system, with some standards of what good work looks like. It sounds to me like he advocates for the vision of Linda Darling-Hammond and, of course, I would welcome their approach.

I’m not convinced, however, that we can get there (a profession with standards similar to those of the medical profession) from here. I don’t see a twenty- to sixty-fold increase in high-quality professional development, as has been suggested, in lieu of the test and punish shortcut of the last decade. On the other hand, if we could have taken the tens of billions of dollars that was wasted on accountability-driven reform and used it to implement Mehta’s and Darling-Hammond’s ideas, I bet we would have seen great results.

Mehta is correct in criticizing a system where, “Instruction that really pushes students to think can be found in about 1 in 5 classrooms nationwide.” Moreover, “the problem is not that teachers and principals are not exercising fidelity to a particular program; the problem is that they don't have enough skill, expertise, and potentially resources to make the program work amidst their context.”

I believe that contemporary school reform has been unique in modern American history in that it has invested so much money and energy in accomplishing so little good, while doing a lot of harm to many students and educators. Few reformers in other sectors of society have failed so badly.

However, I agree with Mehta’s big point regarding the lessons that can be learned from reformers. Yes, “there is a kind of energy in some parts of the reform community to extensively examine each and every aspect of their practice and see how it could be improved,” and traditionalists (like Darling-Hammond) should embrace that (as many of us do.)

I read Mehta’s excellent critique of traditionalism and reach a conclusion which might be different from his. Yes, “The Past is not dead. Hell, it ain’t even over.” But, it doesn’t follow that reformers can use “disruptive innovation” to defeat history and that “transformative change” will produce the greater good for the greater number. Mehta’s analysis could better be applied to a call for modesty. Since the creation of new and better systems is so difficult, and has the potential for producing so much unintended harm, reformers should be very reluctant to impose “win-lose” solutions. They should meet a high burden of proof before mandating systems of reward and punishment.

I think about this every day, and I keep concluding that the evidence Mehta stresses, like the evidence he downplays, argues that we need more of the slower, but safer, “win-win” approach to school improvement.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.




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