Two Questions For Every Education Reform

Last week I wrote a post for This Week in Education arguing that Bill Gates’ plan for a video camera in every classroom is probably misguided in that it attempts to solve a supply problem with a demand solution. It’s already easy for teachers and administrators to get video cameras, so it looks like the real issue is that they don’tĀ want to use them.

More generally, it’s striking how often education reform proposals don’t come with an explanation for why they haven’t already been adopted either in education or in other sectors. That’s true of “cameras in the classroom”, but it’s also true of performance pay and proposals to increase teacher dismissal rates. The fact that these ideas aren’t already widely adopted should give us pause.

The problem is not that every good idea has already been thought of. Trying to innovate in education is fine, but it needs to be done with a dose of humility. Part of that humility means acknowledging that no matter how brilliant your idea seems to you, there’s a good chance other people have considered it beforeĀ and it didn’t catch on.

Too often, the closest reformers get to acknowledging this is with lazy (and offensive) hand-waving about resistance from “special interests” who “defend the status quo”.

In reality, the status quo is the status quo in large part because it represents an equilibrium that effectively – if not always ideally – balances the numerous and diverse interests of a great many stakeholders.

If reformers aren’t aware of all of those competing priorities, they’re not only going to come off sounding arrogant and dismissive, they’re going to make successful implementation of their preferred policies that much harder. After all, if you don’t know and acknowledge what problems have prevented your policy from being adopted, you’re that much less likely to mitigate those problems effectively.

So my proposal is this: If you think we need to make a major change to education policy, make sure you can give plausible, good-faith answers to these two straight-forward questions.

  1. Why isn’t this already done more widely in education?
  2. Do other (or similar) sectors do something similar? If not, why not and why shouldn’t we have analogous concerns about doing it in education?

This will both get you points for humility and help you think through the trade-offs entailed by your proposal.

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  1. Posted May 31, 2013 at 6:01 AM | Permalink

    This is a thoughtful post, but I think it assumes more sincerity, less deception and fewer ulterior motives than actually exist. (I’m stating this as mildly as possible.)

    • Posted June 1, 2013 at 1:27 AM | Permalink

      Thanks. I’m sure there’s some disingenuousness, but my experience is that part of the problem is precisely that so many reformers (of all stripes) are “true believers”. I think that explains a lot of their blindness to trade-offs.

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