Can We Talk? Especially About What We Ought To Expect From Schools?

Apparently a Freddie deBoer column about education got spiked, he published it himself on his Substack this weekend:

What follows is a piece that I was commissioned to write for an education publication called The Grade. On submission they declared that the piece was, quote, “too hot” for publication. As I said to them, that response demonstrates the piece’s thesis perfectly.

OK, I don’t think it’s too hot per se, but I do think it has some problems. It violates what we call around Bellwether the “Cannon Rule.” That’s shorthand for present arguments in ways that those holding them would see themselves in. In other words, what’s these days often called steel manning an argument.

This is an image of a spike being driven, though not into an article.

Still, deBoer’s main point is something we should talk about – and a healthier sector would.

By way of background, I recommend deBoer’s work around here from time to time and Cult of Smart (2020 Holiday Book List) remains the best distillation of an important subsurface argument in our sector that I’ve seen. Not my take but it makes some important points.

And I also generally disagree with much, though not all, of his take on K-12. Still he should be appointment reading for people who follow the ideas and culture side of this sector. He is smart and has a point of view worth engaging – and an accessible style.

In this new essay deBoer overstates the New Orleans situation in one especially pointed paragraph basically sweeping away claims of success there (elsewhere some boosters overstate it the other way). New Orleans schools are overall much better than pre-Katrina. There are still problems. It’s, you know, full of nuance. That’s a good example of where the article is too much straw man and not enough steel man. If you want to dig into New Orleans I’d start here.

Here are what deBoer sees as key education orthodoxies to be challenged:

The optimism bias in education circles has several orthodoxies.

1.      Every student is capable of academic flourishing, and every time a student does not flourish, it must be the result of some sort of error or injustice.

2.      There is no such thing as an unachievable academic standard for any student.

3.      Arguments that these expectations are unrealistic and create perverse incentives are to be dismissed alternatively as excuse-making or as evidence of bigotry.

4.      Proposed interventions that might increase student performance are assumed to be effective no matter how many times they fail to demonstrate gains in research.

5.      Anyone who disagrees with this doctrine hates children, supports inequality, and doesn’t care about poor people.

I’ve done this work for two decades and have yet to run into someone who argues #2. There is something to #1 but it’s more subtle, more on that below.

There is so much excuse making that while I’m sympathetic to #3 the signal noise problem coupled with the tribalism problem really does confuse things. We can’t talk honestly about what is excuse making versus what are real barriers that should be addressed. I mean seriously, we’re still debating learning loss. We’re still debating what to call the achievement gap…

It’s the same case with #5. That idea gets thrown around too casually (on all sides) but there are people (again on all sides) arguing various points out of something other than sincere belief. That hardly makes education unique. A.O. Hirschman wrote a whole book about public affairs arguments.

#4 is basically a core problem in this sector. But it’s a problem in two ways. Confusion about effectiveness (some things do work and it’s weird how much the sector roots against that), and lack of attention to where there is evidence of effectiveness and then obviously also to R&D.

By way of another example, deBoer writes,

My book’s argument is attractive to teachers because they’ve lived under an educational ideology that insists that every student is a budding genius whose potential waits to be unlocked by a dedicated teacher – and which holds teachers to that unachievable standard. From the right, they’re subject to “no excuses” culture, the constant insistence from the education reform movement that student failures are the result of lazy and feckless teachers; from the left, they’re subject to a misguided egalitarianism that mistakes the fact that every child is important and deserves to be nurtured for the idea that every child has perfectly equal potential. The result is a system that presses teachers to deliver learning outcomes in their classrooms that they can’t possibly achieve. But many of them feel that they can’t push back, for fear of professional consequences. If they speak frankly about the fact that different students have different levels of individual potential, they’ll likely be accused of shirking their duty.

There are a few problems with this paragraph. No excuses was an idea popular on the right and the left. The entire pushback on that idea and No Child Left Behind more generally – that doomed it – was based on this dare not speak its name sentiment, amplified by some of the most powerful special interest groups in the country. And the idea that students have equal potential comes, for most people, with a big asterisk that says, *up to a point.

The thing is, in terms of school accountability we’re a long way from that point (high stakes for students is a different issue). Right now most people have no idea how minimal the standards to be “proficient” on most state tests still are. How few questions a student needs to answer correctly. How little is often asked. And how far from that line many students and schools are.

No Child Left Behind required a special rule in its accountably requirements because so many schools had so few kids proficient even on low level state tests. Not 100%, we’re talking about millions of kids in schools with less than one in five kids profoficent on those tests. While everyone was talking about “100%,” which despite credulous media the law didn’t require anyway, that abysmal level of performance was such a real policy problem it skewed results in a way that required special fixes.

The actual argument, today, is all else equal can we expect more than the outcomes we see. And, if so, then how much? I argue yes. Many argue no, or no unless we make enormous other reforms to American society. It’s an important conversation because how you see this question will define how you see questions about deploying people, resources, focus and also how you see the politics of our sector – and increasingly partisan politics, too.

Anyway, though I disagree quite a bit, deBoer make an important, if hot, contribution to that discussion, read his essay for yourself.