Fixing Education: Who You Gonna Believe?

I remember the PTA meeting very well. Parents and teachers were at loggerheads, because standardized test scores had just been published. The students at this top tier public school didn’t do very well, and the parents were furious. They blamed the teachers. The teachers blamed the parents. The superintendent blamed the tests. Every group retreated to a corner to lick their wounds. The principal wanted to do some healing so she asked me to assemble a panel of teachers who would speak to parents about the schools’ homework policy. A nice, easy non-confrontational policy that was clearly explained in the school’s handbook. (Note to self: Never believe the words in a school’s handbook!) I knew, of course, that there was no universal homework policy no matter what was printed . Each teacher tweaked and tailored the homework to the needs of each student.

I suggested we sit in small groups, teachers and parents together, and read a short piece about homework. One teacher in each group was trained to facilitate a thoughtful dialogue about the ideas in the piece.  Were we ever surprised by the conversations! Think homework policy is an innocuous way to bring people together? Here’s what we heard:

 “ My husband and I get home at 8pm every night. We don’t want to have to deal with homework . Please don’t give it.”

“ I had to do 3 hours of homework every night in elementary school. Why aren’t our kids getting the rigorous work I had to do?”

“ I will always correct my child’s homework even when you tell him to do it on his own. I believe homework is a window into my house and I will not let you see it “dirty.”

“ Why do I let my kid make projects on her own when I see the perfect work that comes in from other parents? Those kids couldn’t possible make an igloo out of sugar cubes so perfectly without help.”

“ I don’t even understand the math that my child is coming home with. How do you expect me to help her?”

“I told my kid not to worry about the math homework; I wasn’t very good at it either.”

Who would you believe? And what steps would you take? If we can’t talk sensibly about homework (Is it even necessary? How much is too much? What kind is most effective?), how can we possibly discuss what we believe to be the purpose of education?

A philosophy of education has been relayed from every media source known to us. Not lately by those who tie their souls to the classroom. By business leaders and “reformers” who rely on little or no research, who use improbable business models to tell us how to teach. “If it works for business….”

Who believes them?

Those who are making educational policy these days continue to stay within their comfort zone, hardly ever inviting educators into the conversation. Most have not spent a month, a week, a day in a real classroom, teaching real kids. Nope. They continue to stay close to their business model regardless of the results. They continue to speak to the converted. They find their voices echoed in a chamber that doesn’t confront them with challenges.

According to Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and “school reformers” -inclusion is mine) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold. The confirmatory bias of (this kind of thinking) favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggerations of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.” Do you believe him?

Kahneman adds: “Complexity is painful to contemplate. “Casual explanations of chance events are inevitably wrong.”

If it’s not too late for thoughtful and serious dialogue around the purpose, the value, and the meaning of public education, more parents and educators will have to begin to think of themselves as political animals. They will have to enter the arena of public discourse, speak with authority, use anecdotes backed up with research. They will have to be continually on task and on target.

Those in the business of making profits from our public schools really have no skin in the game. If they lose, only money is lost. Not their prestige, not their values. Not their own educational possibilities. If we loose…… Do you believe me now?