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Relying on Magic: The Foundations of Would-be Education Reformers

With high unction, priests of educational reform often proclaim their notions are grounded on a strong scientific base. Embarrassingly, the President and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have made similar assertions of scientific footings, notwithstanding the failure to actually support those claims.

Science, of course, has certain advantages, in that its proofs are subject to verification, are based on careful observations, must generally be replicable, and must follow commonly accepted designs and rules of evidence. But science has the pesky drawback of not necessarily confirming the answers we want to hear. There are all those awkward things to explain like reformer Joel Klein claiming success as an “established fact” while Arne Duncan says 83 percent of the schools are failing.

Magic, however, has been discovered to be a far more flexible and useful tool for supporting policy reforms. Contrary scientific findings can be brushed away with the same untroubled ease as an end-of-worlder explaining why the apocalypse didn’t happen last week.

As magical notions gain political traction, a supporting “science” is retro-invented. Contemporary retro-science includes reports that provide squishy, oblique and leading evidence on how untrained teachers will do as well or better than trained ones, class sizes can be increased without harm to children, and test-based accountability will save all despite the last twenty years of less-than-stellar success. Magicism is most easily recognized by its strong declaratory incantations, frequently delivered by people with limited or no experience in the field. Being short on science, it relies on the brandishing of symbols, rituals, and rites.

Symbols - The most revered symbols are school choice and test scores. Choice and competition through the private market are said to act through an “invisible hand” to miraculously bring about benefits and efficiencies that could never be attained through democratic decision making. Test scores are most powerful when reverentially presented with an international test score chart, which is only used to show the United States as performing poorly and falling further behind. The presentation of this symbol must be accompanied by the incantation, “If we are going to out-compete (insert nation of choice), then we must improve our international test scores.” (This is scientific bunk, but few question the claim). The invocation of these symbols is then followed by the unveiling of the monolith, the Common Core, whose magical adoption in every classroom will cure the nation’s education problems. This belief is sustained by the pillars of the two major testing consortia that will blanket the nation in computerized accountability. Social conditions, impoverishment, the underfunding of schools (particularly urban schools), and the lack of capacity for implementing the new programs cannot be mentioned or the spell will be broken. Somehow, the mere procession of these symbols will result in an educational renaissance while, at the same time, cutting costs! How this magical transformation will happen is not exactly clear.

Rituals – The highlight of the calendar is the Administration of the Tests in which proctors reverently pass out tests and number two pencils. After completion, the tests are counted, sealed and sent to inner sanctums in Princeton, NJ, Iowa City or some such place where they are boiled down to their Delphic essence: failing scores. This is necessary for the Celebration of the Failures. State departments of education ritualistically announce the ever-increasing numbers of failures with press releases saying “We are proud of the scores of our affluent, white children but other schools and teachers must work harder.” Privatization advocates then call for more charter schools even though the scientific evidence shows they have no particular advantage and they segregate the schools.

Rites – Next in the almost liturgical calendar is the purification rite. Failing schools most go through the stakeholder planning process and make “data-based decisions.” Although the federal government’s own Institute for Education Sciences has published a report concluding that this process shows low evidence of being successful (see Appendix D), local teachers must meet with central office and state officials to “drill down” into test scores in the hope that they will find something beyond the common sense solution of providing under-served children with more learning resources and safer, healthier places to live. Nevertheless, like charting horoscopes, the teachers develop a plan and send it to the district and then to the state, neither of which have sufficient capacity to improve learning conditions.

Since all this has not worked particularly well, the leading oracles have concluded that teachers, principals, and “forces committed to the status quo” have not implemented the rituals and rites with sufficient faith and fervor. Sacrifices, therefore, are required. In the current system, failure to improve the test scores generally requires the sacrifice of the principal. But the reformers demand more. The federal Race to the Top criteria, along with pronouncements of the Secretary of Education demonstrates considerable support for sacrificing a greater number of teachers. This is in spite of the reservations and cautions about this approach from ten of the nation’s most prominent measurement experts. Of course, the National Academies report found that high stakes accountability doesn’t work and, unfortunately, backfires. But this is scientific evidence, and it’s no match for the power of magic.

Magic shows can be enjoyable, but school reform is serious business. Unfortunately, we have suffered no shortage of distracting conjurers. It’s time to hand over education policymaking to people who will base their decision-making on evidence, not sleight of hand. If magic could solve the problems of our schools, then all would already be well. Fixing our schools can be done. And all we have to do is to look to what science (and human decency) tells us. Then, we must have the political and moral courage to deal with economic inequities in society, dismantle the residential and school policies that segregate and deprive our neediest, repair our school facilities and funding inequities, train and support our teachers, and re-establish the purpose of schools as the strengthening of a democratic society. Certainly many of the would-be Merlins with millions mean well. Just don’t expect this kind of magic to save our schools before King Arthur makes his mythical return.

William J. Mathis

Following a decade as the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, William J. Mathis serves as a Senior Policy Adv...