Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Education Reform News and an Appeal for Evidence-Based Policy

Today brings news of the education reform movements superstar Michelle Rhee's ouster as chief of the DC public schools and of the PPS school board's decision to accept, finally, the high school redesign plan of Super Carole Smith.

In DC, a new mayor is bringing on his own team but promises to continue the reforms Rhee began, though it must be assumed that they will not continue apace.  In Portland, after a process that looked suspiciously like trying out competing redesigns to see which one would have the weakest dissent, it was finally determined that Marshall High would be the one to close despite the promising gains in student achievement made there recently.

I have no specific gripe with the Portland high school redesign - it may well be that this is the best thing for the district to do - what concerns me is that we don't really have any idea what the best thing to do is.  And thus, every few years the powers that be decide that something different has to be done.  First it is small schools: they are the answer to all that is wrong with Portland's low performing high schools.  A few short years later it is large comprehensive schools that are the answer.  The truth is no one knows what the right answer is, and confident statements by the superintendent about doing what is right are naive.  What I am pretty sure of is that constant re-jiggering of the schools is not optimal for anything except continued low performance.

And this is the problem, policy is ahead of the science but this doesn't lead to more subtle policy, rather more hubris-led big policy.  I suppose this is part of the politics of the thing.  Rhee for example, clearly relished the spotlight and was a hard-charger toward reform.  I think the flexibility she won for the district to be more proactive with both good and bad teachers is a good thing. But the truth about teacher incentives is that that are not a panacea - in fact studies have shown only modest improvements with incentives.  This is not really surprising, most teachers are doing their very best and working devilishly hard every day to get their students to succeed.  I think it is more about getting talented teachers to take up the profession and moving those less naturally adept into other professions. To do so, I think it is schools of education that need to start to get more proactive and serious about evaluating their students.  But I digress.

What is needed is a little humility and a desire to learn what works on the part of policy makers.  PPS, for example, is sitting on a mountain of incredibly valuable data, but as far as I am aware no real study of this data is being done.  And yet major policy is being made.  As I have said before, PPS has a wonderful opportunity to use its transfer lottery as a nice natural experiment to begin to understand what happens to students that are put into different educational situations.  But alas, what we get are over-confident statements about how this new approach will bring about the desired results.

I hope so, but we shouldn't be making policy in the dark.


Fred Thompson said...

The Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences has been working for some time now to upgrade what passes for evidence in education policy discussions. Their efforts have not been very popular with education researchers or with education reformers, in part for reasons of self interest and in part because IES's preferred methods do not match up very well to the analytical problems at hand.

Have you tried to get access to the PPS lottery data? What kind of questions would you use it to answer? Do you know anyone else who has tried to get it or use it?

ben said...

Oregon is too short of money to conduct proper data analysis This will be the excuse. How would you refute this? One can go with the ol "yeah but in the long run what will cost more dumb kids or spending cuts?" But since the money would likely be from the education fund, at least a part of it, what would be the proposal?