A Sleeper Study for Education Reform?

NOTE: This is a guest post by Steve Fleischman, deputy executive officer at Education Northwest, a nonprofit headquartered in Portland, Ore., that conducts research, evaluation, technical assistance, training, and strategic communications activities to promote evidence-informed education policy and practice.

In the movie Sleepers, Woody Allen awakens in the year 2173 to find out that health food is bad for you and that deep fat, steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are all healthy. A character in the movie notes that Allen’s beliefs are “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.” The scene ends with a scientist offering Allen a cigarette, because it is “one of the healthiest things for your body.” This scene gives rise to the question: What if all our beliefs about what it takes to improve the nation’s schools turn out to be wrong?

A recent article by Carrie R. Leana, a professor of organization and management at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that the current “ideology of school reform,” based on a belief in the “power of teacher human capital, the value of outsiders, and the centrality of the principal in instructional decision practice [is] rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research.” Based on her own studies, Leana presents a reform approach characterized by the collective engagement of staff, the establishment of trust and “meaningful” communications among teachers, and the work of principals who spend their time supporting teacher efforts by building external relations. For a teacher’s take on the article see the EdWeek blog Teaching Now.

Also on the “human capital” front, a recent post by Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor and frequent author on evidence-based management, writes in relation to New York City halting its teacher bonus experiment, “Are you surprised? I am not, and if the people running the New York City school system had actually read a large body of existing research, they would never have wasted all this money in the first place.”

I am not arguing for or against the policies described above. After all, it turns out chocolate is good for you! I just think that “look before you leap” is good advice taken too infrequently in education policy making.

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