Proofs, Logical Fallacies and Ed Reform

A Facebook posting caught my attention tonight.  Yes, I am forcing myself to check my Facebook account as part of the recently instituted “Operation Life Balance,” without allowing myself to feel too guilty about taking time for my mental health.  I never thought I’d rationalize social networking in just this way, but there is a first for everything.

The shared Facebook post linked to a recent article titled Proof there is no proof for education reforms posted at Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet.  Valerie’s lead-in for the article follows.

A New York high school principal writes about how misleading information is guiding education reform in the state, with dangerous consequences.

Sadly, the use of misleading information to guide education reform is not isolated to the Empire State.

Education Reform Hype

The article’s author does a great job debunking much of the hype running rampant in ed reform circles today.  For those who are not as aware of the issues, simply know that a teacher (even the most superhuman) can only accomplish so much given the limited amount of quality face time (per student, per day) amongst all of the exogenous factors influencing student learning, especially due to their cumulative and day-to-day effects.  Quality face time is defined as a teacher facilitating focused student learning, ideally one-on-one or in a small group setting, with minimal distractions, in order to check for understanding and to provide additional instructional support as needed to address any misconceptions, misunderstanding or mistakes that may exist.  Unfortunately, this scenario is more fantasy than reality in many public schools today, especially as class sizes exceed 30 or more students ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen, with significant diversity in English language proficiency, prior content area proficiency, and social / behavioral skills.

As someone new to this profession, I continue to be stunned at the enormity of the challenge facing teachers and administrators as framed by “closing the achievement / opportunity gap.”  The challenge is compounded by surreal, Alice in Wonderland environments and experiences since systems, roles, and processes initially designed a century ago are expanded, repeatedly, to encompass ever more complex legislative and regulatory mandates without being reengineered to address the new functions; the engineering maxim, form follows function is obviously not adhered to in education.

Furthermore, while many of the changes are driven by well-meaning, well-intended souls intent on eradicating the achievement / opportunity gap, and addressing other special needs, these same souls are mostly unaware of the unintended consequences that result once they claim victory over the status quo with the passage of new legislation or regulation. Those details are “exercises left to the reader,” for those familiar with that textbook refrain of yore.

My questions for those in ed reform circles follow.  When will a true, apolitical analysis of the entire system, which includes in-school and out-of-school factors, truly influence reform?  When will research be directed at what I call “common sense” factors such as the amount of quality time to which a student has access, and takes advantage of, to study and do homework each day; the extent to which a student has access to, and receives, academic support outside the classroom; or whether a student has the minimum pre-requisite skills needed to understand course content and if not, how rapidly could they be provided access to a program where they could truly gain those skills?  Without answers to sensitive topics like these, poverty will continue to cast a dark pall on many a student’s achievement.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges, I firmly believe we, as a nation, have the intellectual know-how to improve our public school system significantly.  More importantly, we know much of what is needed to improve the learning outcomes of students who repeatedly fall short in their achievement.  However, we do not have the political will, or financial stomach, to implement programs to address those shortcomings.  These programs require a significant investment of time, talent, and treasure from multiple stakeholders to implement.  The return on investment may take decades to realize, since the programs initially address social inequities rather than balance budgetary shortfalls.  Unfortunately, unless and until the negative consequences of today’s educational system profoundly impacts a significant segment of our voting public, this will remain the case, and the status quo will prevail, where teachers and administrators are expected to achieve miracles with limited access to divine intervention.

Fallacious Reasoning

Instead, inane logic pervades the educational reform community.  Dictums replete with fallacious reasoning are pronounced from reform pulpits to include the current favorite:  1) there’s a persistent problem with the achievement gap, and 2) teachers are the largest (in-school) influence on achievement; hence, 3) teachers must be responsible for the problem and held accountable.  This illogic drives current “teacher effectiveness” initiatives sweeping the country where teachers must be measured to make them accountable and therefore close the gap, or so the thinking goes.  This mantra permeates the actions of ed reformers of all walks, which in turn, drives further legislative and regulatory actions.   Hence, the vicious cycle continues, adding more burdens to a system near collapse while political operatives, in the guise of analysts, add insult to injury, by bemoaning the exorbitant pay of those able to achieve a modicum of progress in untenable circumstances.

Even ed reformers who spent a portion of their career in the classroom jump on the “teacher must close the gap” bandwagon since they have no other option or lever to pull.  I believe 99% of teachers and administrators want to improve educational outcomes for all students, yet wishing it were so while making random, near haphazard “reforms” in the name of progress is ill-informed at best, and destructive at worst, not only to students, but teachers, administrators, and communities.

Action alone is not the measure of progress, no matter how easy it might be to make it appear that way.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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