Sunday, April 4, 2010

Uneducated Thinking about Education?

The cover of the Insight Section of today's San Francisco Chronicle poses a question that should be on everyone's mind:

Which route to a better education?

This makes it a bit depressing that, upon opening the Section the first thing you read are these paragraphs by Ze'ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky:

In February, the national press reported on a pilot program that will give high school sophomores in eight states a chance to earn a diploma and head straight to credit-bearing math and English courses at a state college. To do so, they will have to take special course work and can try to pass academic tests known as board exams as early as grade 10.

The idea of a grade 10 diploma is the latest brainchild of the National Center on Education and the Economy, the originator of the unsuccessful school-to-work initiative in the 1990s. The project is funded by the Gates Foundation, which has abandoned its initiative to create small high schools as a way to get more low-achieving students through high school.

The good news is that Wurman and Stotsky use this as an introduction to a well-reasoned set of arguments as to why this course-change by the Gates Foundation is a profoundly bad idea. However, having very recently seen a Book TV program of Ian Mitroff talking about bad decision-making practices, I think it is worth examining why this course-change came to pass in the first place.

The fact is that the Gates Foundation's Plan A was a really great idea. As one who continues to subscribe to John Dewey's principle that education is all about experience, I believe that any effort directed at creating conditions through which more students (particularly those low achievers) can experience more and better engagements with good teachers will take us in the right direction along that "route to a better education." The problem, of course, is that implementing Plan A is extremely difficult; and, even worse, the difficulty arises from so many reasons that one can barely enumerate them. What this means is that the implementation of Plan A cannot be addressed through the objective methodology of defining a goal and preparing a step-by-step plan for getting from current conditions to the "goal state."

This is where Mitroff enters the picture. Among the points he made in his talk was his assertion that bad decisions can arise when one makes perfectly good decisions to address a framing of a problem that poorly represents the problem itself. In his talk Mitroff illustrated this in his analysis of how the effort to reform health care was gradually but steadily derailed. Unfortunately, reforming education will quickly run into as many snags as reforming health care, even to the point that some of them are likely to be the same snags. Mitroff further argues that the only way in which a problem can be properly framed is that the frame itself gets subjected to a critical examination conducted by a group of individuals equipped to argue cohesively opposing points of view. In all probability the shift to Plan B was a result of reframing education reform, and it is a perfect example of a thoroughly inadequate reframing. Was this a matter of a failure to apply that critical examination when it was most needed? Unfortunately, the individuals required to perform such an examination tend to acquire their skills through quality education, which means that, as our educational systems deteriorate, so do the capacities of those empowered to decide the future of those systems. Ultimately, we are stuck in a downward spiral; and no amount of persuasive opinion pieces in the newspapers are likely to reverse the course of that spiral.

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