Research & the Road

to Common Ground on Choice

Robert E. Slavin,
Ph.D., Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University, School of Education /

Ulrich Boser,
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress and Founding Director of its Science of Learning Initiative

Neal McCluskey,
Ph.D., Director, Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute


The onset of the “choice” era in K–12 public education has brought what should be some truly valuable education research into the decision process.

At the same time, we live in an age when expertise is often seen as a detriment and there are alternative facts to support almost any argument, whether it is about health care, climate change or education.

It is in our nature to see research filtered through our own set of biases and preconceived ideas of what is best. Education research is hardly immune from that kind of filtering and it is far too tempting to reject research that suggests anything counter to our fixed opinion and to cherry pick those studies that conform to our beliefs.

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“It is in our nature to see research filtered through our own set of biases and preconceived ideas of what is best. Education research is hardly immune from that kind of filtering and it is far too tempting to reject research that suggests anything counter to our fixed opinion and to cherry pick those studies that conform to our beliefs.”

“I can give examples from the science of learning about even the size of the stack of flash cards can help students learn about a third more. We can see that big changes take place in textbooks, where we’ve done studies showing that moving from one textbook to another is about the same as moving from an average teacher to a highly effective teacher,” Boser said.

Too often, according to Boser, the idea of school choice is about ideas regarding market solutions, subjects of interest or “learning styles,” rather than assuring more complete teaching tool kits. Boser cited Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaking to a senator about being a “visual learner” when there is no evidence to support such difference in learning styles — and he’s quick to point out that he could find similar views at the opposite end of the education/politics spectrum.

“I think at the very top what we know is that policymakers don’t have an acute sense of what effective teaching and learning looks like. I think, when it comes to the school choice conversation, this is important. One, the stakes are very high. And, two, there’s an information issue in that parents aren’t able on the face of it to determine what is a good product,” Boser said.

“They remember their favorite teachers from as far back as kindergarten. Maybe they were funny or spirited or made history come alive.”

“You’ll hear people say ‘we know what our goals are’ and they are usually very broad. We want social cohesion. We want everybody to have equal access to education. Where we end up disagreeing is how to meet some of those really broad goals,” he said.

There is no denying that money influences some of the choice argument. Critics of public schools have long argued the unions are more interested in protecting the economic interests of teachers than they are in fostering quality education. Voucher proponents argue that they are vehicles to economic fairness while, more recently, some of the people driving school choice have investments in things like charter schools.

If money can determine where we teach, other biases can determine what we teach or how much of a subject we teach. McCluskey cited research that showed that a majority of high school biology teachers avoided evolution entirely or taught watered-down versions to stay away from conflict.

“What I think needs to happen is we need to get away from this strategically easy approach to public policy debates and stop saying that people who disagree with us are doing so because they have bad motives,” McCluskey said.

McCluskey believes in an approach common to think tanks. That is, a “school of thought,” or evidenced-based opinion, openly acknowledged and shared and followed by civil discourse.

The right research might get us to that kind of discourse, but no one suggests that we are there yet.

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