10/17/2013 03:53 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

Countering Flim-flam With Science

I was talking with a big-city school superintendent the other day who cynically -- but accurately -- observed that vultures are swirling around schools and education. "They smell the money," he said. His city is beset by flim-flam men and women promising to educate impoverished children with some whiz-bang gizmo or another.

The superintendent bemoans the fact that some of the most extravagant promises find welcome audiences among policymakers, parents and the general public who look at the current state of American schools -- particularly like those in his city, which enroll significant numbers of children who live in poverty -- and say, "Well, something has to be done."

The superintendent is well aware that, indeed, something does have to be done, but not by rocketing from one expensive computer program or textbook series or hand-held device to another. Ultimately educating kids is a student-by-student process that takes caring, knowledgeable adults who:

  • closely focus on what kids need to know;
  • collaborate with colleagues on how to teach it using the best research available;
  • dispassionately evaluate evidence of their successes and failures to understand what works and what doesn't for the students they are serving;
  • adjust what they are doing to reflect the evidence. Or, to borrow the words of a very accomplished principal, "Do more of what works and less of what doesn't."

How can I be so sure of that?

First, because in a decade of visiting and studying schools that are successful with students who are generally considered to be challenging -- students of color and students who live in poverty -- I have seen that they ALL do some version of this very process.

Second, because that process -- at least most of it -- accords with general scientific principles.
The part that isn't science is the decision about what students need to know. Ultimately, that is a value judgment. But the rest is pure science.

In science, we begin with a generally accepted theory and make a prediction about what might work. We then test that prediction and observe the results.

To quote Daniel Willingham's wonderful book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education (Jossey-Bass, 2012):

What happens next? We make another trip around the Science Cycle, pushing the theory to make more refined predictions, and testing it in more varied circumstances. Eventually we'll find a failure, a circumstance in which the theory predicts something other than what we observe. Finding such a failure is actually a good thing. Why? Because that's the way science advances. Failures are the motivators of improved theories. If we develop a theory that is very hard to disprove, even after many tests, then we start to have some confidence that this theory is a good description of the world and will be of some use to us.

This is pretty basic stuff, but it is foreign enough to the field of education that Willingham felt it necessary to write a book explaining how educators and others concerned with schools can use scientific processes to sort out the real from the flim-flam. In his conclusion Willingham says:

Advances in science have been used effectively to improve education. That's not the problem. The problem is recognizing the effective uses from the ineffective uses, because the advances have not meant a parallel decline in claptrap and out-and-out fraud. The scientist appears not to have more effective evidence than the charlatan because the charlatan not only trumpets 'research' but probably does so more loudly than the scientist, who is trained to be cautious. And so virtually any idea can be supported by 'data' of some sort. Education theorist E.D. Hirsch put it this way: 'The enormous problem faced in basing policy on research is that it is almost impossible to make educational policy that is not based on research... Experts have advocated almost every conceivable practice short of inflicting permanent bodily harm.'

I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in education to read Willingham's book. It gives you a place to stand when beset by the swirling vultures.

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