All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


14 June 2011

The Right Expert for the Problem

A few months ago, Michelle Rhee came to speak at UCLA. One of the things that struck me about the way she was greeted by what can only be described as an extremely hostile crowd was the way that people reacted when she was asked how much teaching experience she has. She said three years, and practically the entire room groaned in disapproval. The message was clear even before one of the earnest fellows (it was a woman, mind you, on fellowship) from the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA actually was rude enough to put it into words a few moments later: no one with just three years of teaching experience has any business attempting to make educational policy.

That night was in the back of my mind a few weeks ago when I was reading this post about the influence of Bill Gates on education, over at Joanne Jacobs' blog. Many of the commentors reflected what I think can fairly be called a healthy skepticism about Gates' qualifications to engage in the project of education reform; there was much talk about his misguided efforts, his reliance on experts. The meme is fairly common; I've heard this sort of thing about Gates before:

As much as Bill Gates knows about making money through monopolistic business practices aided by neo-liberal economics and libertarian politics, he knows next to nothing about education, and worse, he refuses to listen to experienced teachers, instead dismissing us as enemies.

You've doubtlessly heard similar criticisms directed towards other ed-reformers: "You don't have any experience in administration", or "All your experience is in suburban schools", or "Education reformers are all ivory-tower academics, not real people with real experience in teaching", or my absolute favourite, "What can you know about education? You're not a parent."

So I've been thinking the last few weeks: what exactly would "qualify" someone to be an education reformer? Thankfully, it's not like there's a major one can get in Education Reform -- or if there is, it's sufficiently ridiculous that no one takes it seriously. There's MPA programs, and EdD programs, and all sorts of other programs, but none of those seem to uniquely situate people to engage in education reform. (Which, I admit, is a vague, broad term, but bear with it for now.)

Who among us has 15 years of teaching in blighted urban schools at both the elementary and high school levels (to understand the problem), 10 years of teaching at successful urban schools serving the same populations (to understand some possible solutions), 10 years of experience in suburban schools, has done fellowships studying the education of children in other countries, has experience in on-site educational administration and finance -- but not too much experience, otherwise you become part of "the system", has been a member of teachers' unions but has never participated in their leadership or institutional activities, has 10 years of experience as a superintendent, has run a successful business, has served as the Secretary of Education, has a PhD in Child Psychology and an MPA with a focus on education, is a parent of more than one kid, all of whom are doing perfectly well?

No one, of course. And even if someone did have such a CV, it doesn't mean that their ideas would be any better than the ideas from a stay-at-home Mom in Indiana, or a second-year Junior High teacher in Seattle. Anyone might come up with a good idea. But who is qualified to judge whether an idea is any good?

I think the answer is that you are. I am. And the guy down the street is qualified. Human beings are pretty cagey creatures, and we tend to know good ideas when we hear them. Sometimes things go badly, but by and large we've been pretty successful. If Bill Gates were to come into my living room and tell me that the solution to public education's problems was shopping off the ring fingers of all the boys, and the pinky toes of all the girls, I'd be pretty sure he was off his rocker. Likewise, if Michelle Rhee were to tell me that what we need to do is turn every public school into a Spartan Military Academy, well, I'd be pretty sure that was a bad idea, too.

I don't think we do anyone any service whatsoever by making ad hominem attacks -- and that's exactly what a criticism of someone's qualifications amounts to. If Gates is wrong, then there's some premise from which he's operating that's simply false, or he's made a mistake in reasoning. If Rhee is wrong, then there's some premise from which she's operating from that is false, or she's made a mistake in reasoning. People say, "If the teachers' unions weren't in control of the schools, they'd be better." That's either true or false -- and it's probably false. People say, "Charter schools will make inner-city education better." That's either true or false -- and it's probably false. We can tell it's false by running a simple thought experiment: imagine a district with dozens of Charter schools filled with child molesting meth addicts for faculty. Clearly merely having charter schools isn't the answer.

There's no one who is an "expert" at education form. There can't be, because it is by its very nature a speculative enterprise. If you want to drill an oil well, you can call a well-drilling expert who's done it before.

But no one has ever really gotten a public school system like the one that the United States has to work before. In the first place, it's a new project, this goal to educate everyone. In the second place, you can say "Well Finland did it!" but the fact is that whoever is the expert from Finland is the expert of what works in Finland. We are not they.

That's not to say that the Finland-guy doesn't have useful things to add to our discussion and debate. He surely does. But he should be explicit as to why he thinks the things he thinks, so that we can judge for ourselves whether they are applicable to our individual situations. We shouldn't discount what he says simply because he's from Finland.

This sort of qualification-hunting and discounting that I'm talking about, this sorting through people based on their resume, is a sort of intellectual shorthand. We use it so that we don't have to parse through 10,000 different people's ideas. We dismiss people as not knowing what they are talking about because, often, that's the only way to make it through the day. Maybe that guy at my door really does have the miracle product that will make my carpets cleaner; but the fact is that I don't have the time to bother with it because I don't think he knows what he's talking about.

But when we're seriously debating issues, big, important issues like education reform, we need to put away our interpersonal heuristics. They aren't helping us. There is no "Right Expert" for the problem, and if someone is serious about throwing their hat into the education reform ring, well, merely on the basis of that qualification I'm willing to listen to what they have to say, and to see what they can do.

1 comment:

Barry Garelick said...

"What can you know about education? You're not a parent."

Interesting; I've often heard the above quote stated with the admonition "You're a parent." Usually from school boards, administrators and/or teachers.