In the 1973 movie classic “Sleeper,” Woody Allen plays a New York health food store owner who wakes up 200 years in the future, in a desolate environment.
“What happened to New York?” he asks the character played by Diane Keaton. She replies, “It was destroyed. Some guy named Al Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon.”
I think every member of the American Federation of Teachers knows this line. Firebrand educator Al Shanker, founder of the AFT, would never have hurt anyone. But short of that, he would do whatever it took to fight for teachers’ rights, and most importantly, for the rights of students to receive a great education. In fact, he saw that the only way for teachers to receive the respect, fair treatment, and adequate compensation they deserved, and still deserve, was to demonstrate that they had skills not possessed by the general public that could have powerful impacts on students’ learning. Physicians are much respected and well paid because they have special knowledge of how to prevent and cure disease, and to do this they have available a vast armamentarium of drugs, devices, and procedures, all proven to work in rigorous research.
Shanker was a huge fan of evidence in education, first because evidence-based practice helps students succeed, but also because teachers using proven programs and practices show that they deserve respect and fair compensation because they have specialized knowledge backed by proven methods able to ensure the success of students.
The Revolutionary Potential of Evidence in Education
The reality is that in most school districts, especially large ones, most power resides in the central office, not in individual schools. The district chooses textbooks, computer technology, benchmark assessments, and much more. There are probably principals and teachers on the committees that make these decisions, but once the decisions are made, the building-level staff is supposed to fall in line and do as they are told. When I speak to principals and teachers, they are astonished to learn that they can easily look up on www.evidenceforessa.org just about any program their district is using and find out what the evidence base for that program is. Most of the time, the programs they have been required to use by their school administrations either have no valid evidence of effectiveness, or they have concrete evidence that they do not work. Further, in almost all categories, effective programs or approaches do exist, and could have been selected as practical alternatives to the ones that were adopted. Individual schools could have been allowed to choose proven programs, instead of being required to use programs they know not to be proven effective.
Perhaps schools should always be given the freedom to select and implement programs other than those mandated by the district, as long as the programs they want to implement have stronger evidence of effectiveness than the district’s programs.
How the Revolution Might Happen
Imagine that principals, teachers, parent activists, enlightened school board members, and others in a given district were all encouraged to use Evidence for ESSA or other reviews of evaluations of educational programs. Imagine that many of these people just wrote letters to the editor, or letters to district leaders, letters to education reporters, or perhaps, if these are not sufficient, they might march on the district offices with placards reading something like “Use What Works” or “Our Children Deserve Proven Programs.” Who could be against that?
One of three things might happen. First, the district might allow individual schools to use proven programs in place of the standard programs, and encourage any school to come forward with evidence from a reliable source if its staff or leadership wants to use a proven program not already in use. That would be a great outcome. Second, the district leadership might start using proven programs districtwide, and working with school leaders and teachers to ensure successful implementation. This retains the top-down structure, but it could greatly improve student outcomes. Third, the district might ignore the protesters and the evidence, or relegate the issue to a very slow study committee, which may be the same thing. That would be a distressing outcome, though no worse than what probably happens now in most places. It could still be the start of a positive process, if principals, teachers, school board members, and parent activists keep up the pressure, helpfully informing the district leaders about proven programs they could select when they are considering a change.
If this process took place around the country, it could have a substantial positive impact beyond the individual districts involved, because it could scare the bejabbers out of publishers, who would immediately see that if they are going to succeed in the long run, they need to design programs that will likely work in rigorous evaluations, and then market them based on real evidence. That would be revolutionary indeed. Until the publishers get firmly on board, the evidence movement is just tapping at the foundations of a giant fortress with a few ball peen hammers. But there will come a day when that fortress will fall, and all will be beautiful. It will not require a nuclear weapon, just a lot of committed and courageous educators and advocates, with a lot of persistence, a lot of information on what works in education, and a lot of ball peen hammers.
Picture Credit: Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain]
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.