11/19/2012 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

A Primer for Non-Education Writers

Education beat writers demonstrate the same excellence as other journalists. The problem is Op Ed columnists and other writers who seem to know no more about schools than what they hear at cocktail parties. Thomas Friedman, Jonathan Alter, and company love to pass on the talking points of "reformers" who share their isolation from urban schools. That is why we need a primer for non-educators who write about education.

After listening to Steven Johnson discuss his new book, Future Perfect, I wonder what would be necessary to raise his consciousness regarding the nitty gritty of schools. Unfortunately, Johnson claims that the Obama administration's Race to the Top (RttT) should be a model for a new way of "moving beyond Left and Right, looking for solutions." Otherwise, he makes sense when discussing how "networked citizens" who are "empowered by connectivity" can become a dynamic force. A futurologist who respects people as peers, as he also upholds the principle of peer review, could be an ally in improving schools.

Before Johnson can understand why the RttT is the antithesis of the principles he espouses, he needs a quick history of the harm done by test-driven "reform" and why it sets up data-driven innovations for failure. Being a science writer, he should heed the concerns of secondary teachers who are often required to offer nothing but "worksheet science" in a foolish attempt to jack up NCLB scores. An even more discouraging pattern is described by elementary teachers in my neck of the woods who complain that high-stakes reading and math tests have pushed out class time for science. A survey of 900 teachers found that more 55% of K-6 teachers have decreased science education by an average 30 to 60 minutes per week. Moreover, "one in five elementary teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on student report cards, despite the fact that they don't spend any time teaching the subject or testing pupils' knowledge in it."

The corruption of data, as well as the narrowing of the curriculum and the imposition of non-stop test prep are legacies of President Bush's NCLB. They help explain why the National Academies of Science concludes that bubble-in accountability has failed. A blue ribbon panel of social scientists and cognitive scientists finds that twenty years of expensive, top down "reforms" have produced little or no gains in some places, while actually harming other students. The scholars write:

Test-based incentives for students may cause some students to achieve more and others to drop out, even with extra support and remediation. Test-based incentives for teachers may cause some teachers to become more effective and others to leave the profession. Test-based incentives for schools may cause some to focus on the full curriculum and others to focus on test preparation.

President Obama once promised to bring science back into presidential decision-making, and when dealing with more pressing issues I am sure he did. In the throwaway field of education, however, the president who I still support has been fundamentally anti-science. He had promised a "team of rivals" decision-making process, but in terms of school reform, his administration bought the venture capitalist's model of "convergence." Under that theory, everyone must "be on the same page." Peer review is disallowed and dissent is not tolerated. The theory is that the plug will soon be pulled on failed experiments. In other words, the clash of ideas is replaced by a social engineering experiment that treats students as lab rats.

Johnson's describes other scientific competitions, from the discovery of a system of tracking longitude to the space age, that often combined the best of peer review with commerce. With recent school "reforms," however, entrepenuerialism has trumped evidence. States were pressured into imposing top down mandates that are the opposite of competitions designed to stimulate new thinking. The National Academies of Science also explains that the Race to the Top flies in the face of generations of research. These eminent scientists nailed the fundamental flaw of RttT's mandates. They "prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches, which evaluate teachers based on gains in their students' performance, to reward or punish teachers."

RttT demanded a utilitarian approach to teacher pay that encourages soul-killing rote instruction. Its micromanagement required primitive high-stakes metrics that everyone knows were designed, in part, to defeat teachers and their unions. It greased the skids for consultants to be paid lavishly while peddling "silver bullets" with long histories of failure. The big difference from the old "quick fixes" is that the price tag is higher for the new ones.

The problem with the Obama administration's innovations is not their reliance on competition. The problem is that they took the Bush-era bubble-in accountability and place it on steroids. A better approach would have been a Race to the Top for early childhood education and full-service community schools, where primitive metrics were not pre-ordained as the be-all, end-all.

To visualize how educational innovations that balance competition with science could work, Johnson should read Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. Tough summarizes decades of cognitive and educational research to explain why the numbers-driven "reform" movement got it backwards. The key to improving schools is the building of social trust and high-quality investments in the socio-emotional. By the way, the Obama administration acknowledges this. The problem is that it went along with the "Billionaires Boys Club," and spent billions on computers for keeping score and forcing educators into compliance, while starving the programs that it might prefer to fund.

Tough explains that the contemporary school reform movement grew out of a liberal PTSD, due to being defeated in the War on Poverty. Accountability hawks gambled on the to-good-to-be-true hope that market-driven, data-driven hypotheses could offer simple solutions to complexities that have confounded researchers and educators. As the latest of those shortcuts, the RttT, is shown to be a failure, we need a dialogue with non-educators before leaping to the next simplistic model.

Journalists who are not on the education beat should also read proven scholars, like Charles Payne, who has decades of practical experience and who once believed that President Obama's innovations might work. Educators, journalists, and education researchers must reach out to writers like Steven Johnson and provide a primer on our field's rich body of evidence, as we raise the consciousness of the Obama administration. And, if they bump into Friedman, Alter et. al in social events, perhaps they can turn them on to some real research about teaching and learning