10/02/2010 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Education Reform's Problem is Identifying the Problem

The problem with the education "reform" movement is that its solutions are cooked up by people who don't really have a clue what the real problems are.

So, it's not too surprising that the answers they come up with are ineffective and wasteful.

Bad analysis results in bad solutions.

No analysis results in even worse solutions.

Here's an example of bad analysis, courtesy of Illinois's self-described "independent, nonpartisan" "reform" group, Advance Illinois (AI).

Based on their own reports, which do little more than compare and contrast test scores, AI promotes the following solutions: more charter schools, more teachers from nontraditional sources such as Teach for America, tying teacher evaluations to test scores, and more testing including national standards and exams and standardized end-of-course tests.

The thing is, all of these solutions have been roundly discredited by science.

Bad analysis, bad solutions.

Now, here's an example of no analysis, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, which is running lists of endorsements for various seats in the November election.

In many cases, the Trib endorsement hinges on a characterization of the candidate as pro- or anti- education "reform" solely based on their vote for or against school vouchers. The Trib calls this, variously, "helping kids in Chicago's worst schools get a better education in private schools/go to the school of their choice/choice for Chicago kids in bad schools/let 30,000 children in Chicago's worst schools get state money to switch to a school of their choice." Those against the bill are described as turning their backs on children.

The thing is, supporting school choice because you think it sounds like an answer to the problems of public education doesn't make it an effective answer. In fact, as a general policy, vouchers don't help poor children get a better education.

It's bad enough that publicly-funded charter schools are allowed to be selective about who they enroll, and to push out they decide they don't want. Just imagine the situation for special education, low-scoring, or other special needs children if even pickier private schools are given a crack at public money.

It's worth noting that the sponsor of last year's Illinois voucher bill, the Rev. Senator James Meeks, runs a Christian school and refuses to enroll any student who scores below the 50th percentile in math or reading.

No analysis, worse solution.

So, what does real, oh, you know, "scientific" analysis tell us? How do we identify the real issues so that we can begin to have an intelligent discussion about what to do about them?

For example, what's really going on with US students vis-a-vis international students? Is there a problem? If so, what is it?

Here's what educators, Secretary of Education Richard Riley and President Bill Clinton already knew back in 1997, according to a New York Times report on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released in 1996 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement:

"A massive new comparative study of educational achievement in 41 countries.... showed that American students log just as much time studying mathematics and science in their classrooms, but the nature of the instruction they receive differs greatly from that of other countries. 'Our problem is not merely the amount of time U.S. students or teachers spend on mathematics and science but what they do with the time they have,' commented Richard Riley, the U.S. secretary of education. Analysis of curricular materials and teaching methods showed that American teachers routinely stress breadth rather than depth. 'We found that American teachers develop concepts far less frequently,' said James Stigler, professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles who coordinated the videotaping of math classes in Germany, Japan and the United States....The study also found that whereas American teachers often have more academic credentials, teachers in the high-performing countries are better prepared in pedagogical skills and spend more time working with colleagues and honing their lessons."

Our national obsession with test scores, which has grown exponentially under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, has only contributed to a worsening of the problems described in that analysis. And, I'm no a scientist, but even I can figure that it's not going to improve the situation if we hire more inexperienced teachers (like those from Teach for America) or expand teaching to the test or begin to pay teachers for test scores or take more money away from public schools to give to private schools that can pick and choose their students.

Real scientific analysis.

Maybe it's time to take a deep breath and start over with some of that instead of wasting time, money, and our children's lives on more magical thinking.