Faith and Reason in Educational Reform

This month, I attended the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). It is a gathering of around 15,000 educational researchers, who present and discuss the latest research findings from all areas of education. The theme of the conference this year was “The Power of Education Research for Innovation in Practice and Policy.” A significant driver of innovation in any field is faitha belief that is not based on proof. Steve Jobs, one of the foremost innovators of our time, talked often about the importance of intuition in leadership. Good intuition allows you to see solutions that others cannot see. Just ask the makers of a smattering of the other products I used on my trip, Bill Gates (Microsoft), Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), Howard Schulz (Starbucks), and Larry Page/Sergey Brin (Google). In every one of those cases, a strong leader saw an opportunity that ran counter to current trends. With the exception of Southwest, all of those companies struggled without the intuition of their founders. 

However, faith alone is insufficient for innovations to succeed. Faith is backed by reasonthe mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences. Faith directs reasoning and creates a focus on what data is important to collect. The decision about what data to collect can enable or thwart innovation by focusing attention on new ways of seeing the world or reinforcing existing approaches. It is possible to infer an individual’s faith based on the data that person values.

Nowhere was the idea of data as instantiation of faith more prevalent than in one of the AERA presentations I attended about the Gates Foundation-funded Measures of Effective Teaching Study (or MET) by Harvard’s Dr. Thomas Kane. The measures used by MET are student feedback surveys, principal observations, and student test score growth (controlling for background characteristics). Midway through his presentation, Dr. Kane discussed an example of using MET data to make a decision about tenure for a third year teacher. He felt that the rational decision for a principle to make is whether the teacher’s test score growth measures are better than other hypothetical teachers that the principal could hire to replace the third year teacher. In other words, the principal should reason through the opportunity cost of awarding tenure to the teacher. Consistent with much of “reform” these days, Dr. Kane expects principals to value test score data above all else.  Never mind that just a few minutes earlier in the same session, Harvard’s Dr. Ronald Ferguson presented results indicating that teaching behaviors that promote test score growth can also hamper student persistence and happiness in school. A myopic focus on test score growth could exacerbate depression and dropouts. 

Aside from the impact of focusing on student test score growth, the valuing of student test scores as a measure of teaching also reveals the faith that drives today’s “reformers.” The Gates Foundation, Teach for America, the Broad Foundation, and others are doubling down, tripling down (or in the case of Bill Gates whatever the term is for 100 fold down) on their faith that we need more heroes in education. Their intuition is that if we could only do a better job of recruiting, measuring and rewarding heroes while at the same time punishing and eliminating cowards, we would eliminate race and SES performance gaps and increase economic mobility. Therefore, this faith focuses what data to collect for data-driven decision making. After two decades of faith in test driven reform, we have not seen innovation in teaching, but rather reinforcement of traditional teaching practices. 

Another drawback for reform by heroes is that heroes leave. In particular, heroes are most likely to leave precisely the schools that need them the most. Alternatively, systems that are designed to engender heroism in ordinary people are much more sustainable and productive. Southwest Airlines is the only major carrier that has never gone into bankruptcy. For 41 years in a row, Southwest has generated a profit. The original faith in an alternative mode of running an airline has been supported by a system that values its employees. That system has engendered continuity on the front lines as well as in the corporate office.

Likewise, we know in education that it is the school structures and level of trust that are huge factors in retaining teachers in urban settings. It is time that we shift our faith away from pioneering heroes towards systems that bring out the best in ordinary people. Attracting and retaining the best teachers relies on systems that have faith that you do have the best teachers and building data systems that support them.