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Dec 28, 2007

Educational Reform: The Denial of Ignorance

As the presidential campaign flares up, No Child Left Behind seems to be in big trouble; see the NY Times account. Virtually no one wants to keep the law as it is; everyone wants to either change it or scrap it. What is conspicuously absent? You guessed right: alternatives. There is a talk of changing the emphasis from testing to teaching, of changing the punitive aspects of the law, etc., etc. It seems most people, especially on the Left, imagine some vagueS softer version of accountability and perhaps more funding for schools. Folks on the Right still hope for deregulation in education, with vouchers or other form of competition unleashing market mechanisms to improve education. Of course, the Democrats are almost forced to make it an election issue, but all they can do is the negative stance against NCLB. The entire bent of Democratic strategies is anti-Bush rather than pro-anything (with the exception of the host of tame medical reforms); education is a part of this: anti-Bush, and pro-very-little. That and some personal innuendo about who’s got more experience and who’s more of a non-Bush.

However, the political discourse on education suffers not only from the normal campaign-induced shallowness, but from a genuine absence of any plausible alternatives. I wish a politician of any kind, let alone the pres candidates, would just stand up and say: “Folks, we’ve got no idea what to do with K-12 education. There were a couple of ideas, and none of them seems to be working. I am pledging significant support to generating new ideas, which then will all be discussed and tested.” Sounds highly unlikely doesn’t it? Yet that would be the only practical position to take. We do have a problem after all: the educational gap between rich and poor kids is still tremendous, which means education for the poor can and should be improved. We don’t have anything close to consensus on what should be done. Moreover, all existing approaches so far have proven ineffective, or very difficult to replicate.

So, what? We have a number of other problems without solutions; deadly diseases is the most obvious example, but also crime, teenage pregnancy, social inequality, etc. Why is it OK to admit that there is no cure for cancer or even common cold, but not OK to admit there is no cure for education? There is a peculiar phenomenon I would call “the denial of ignorance.” Our culture allows for certain things to be unknown, while others have to be known; we do not admit our ignorance about them. Education is clearly one of these areas of “must-know”; politicians have especially hard time admitting having no clue. Or as Dewey used to spell it, no clew.

See for yourself: OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …How to influence price of gas
  • …How to treat Alzheimer’s
  • …What is going to happen with stock market
  • …How to win all elections

Not OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …Who I am and what my beliefs are
  • …What’s right and what’s wrong
  • …What to do with education
  • …How to fight crime

The truth is, most people individually, and we as a society, collectively, have no more clarity about the first set of claims than we have about the second one. Our ignorance is abysmal; our knowledge is frustratingly limited. Among other things, we have created the wonder of contemporary schooling, which turned out to have some nasty side-effects, and we have very little idea about fixing it.

The existence of the “denial of ignorance” is an interesting phenomenon; it is a special case of a knowledge claim. Some institutions are based on implicit knowledge claims. For example, it is very hard to claim an autonomous self, if you cannot define who you are. One who is in doubt about right and wrong cannot claim to have ethics. Once you build an extensive public schooling system, and collect tremendous amount of taxes to support it, you’d be a fool to admit that you have no idea how to make it work properly. Such an admission undermines the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. Yet explaining does not mean justifying. I still think an honorable position for presidential candidates would be to admit the ignorance – not personal one, but our quite obvious collective ignorance, and seek real sizeable resources in finding solutions. Admitting the ignorance about educational reform may actually serve as evidence of being informed. A part of the position of ignorance is to leave the system to its own devices, until a solution is to be found. We simply cannot continue experimenting with the huge national system of K-12 education with unproven interventions. Just to remind everyone: no one has shown that accountability measures will positively impact learning achievements; it was simply assumed (wrongly) to be self-evident. What we need is a moratorium to new reforms, a freedom for states and districts to experiment, and most importantly, a call to develop new models of educational reform.

Of course, I am biased, because I have a proposal, which may be one of many. The point is, by pretending that we have a solution, we waste our time and energy on politics, on little fights about this kind of reading instruction versus that kind of reading, etc. If we focus our energies on developing a new, truly new approach to educational reform, well, we might actually get there.

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