Is “everything we know about education” actually “wrong”?

Today, The Atlantic ran a blog post proclaiming, “Everything You Know About Education Is Wrong.” It’s such a sexy title–I’m wrong about everything I thought I knew about education? Oh, do tell! Perhaps teachers do not matter? Or maybe we should  have shorter class periods rather than longer ones? Perhaps schools should make the football team, and not academics, their primary focus after all??? Let’s find out!

“Think of the ingredients that make for a good school,” Jordan Weissmann, the post’s author, begins. Are you thinking of them, readers? OK. Well, hopefully “Small classes. Well-educated teachers. [And] plenty of funding,” weren’t  ingredients on that mental list you just made, because if they were, according to Weissmann, “your recipe would be horribly wrong.” Ruh-roh!

Weissmann draws this conclusion from the newly-published results of a study by economist (and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient) Roland Fryer, and his colleague Will Dobbie, whose determination after studying data from 35 charter schools in New York City is that far more important than money to a school is its culture–primarily one that supports teachers, allows for maximum instruction time and maintains “a relentless focus on academic goals.”

Does this information really turn “everything we know about education” on its head? I certainly don’t think so. A large part of the problem surrounding our nation’s conversation about education is how much it leaves out the voices of the people who know the most: the teachers who do the work of educating our youth, and the youth themselves, who know a decent school culture when they experience it. After ten years of teaching, I’ve come to know quite a few teachers, and none of them would find the conclusions of this study surprising. None would say that teachers would not benefit from more support and mentoring; in fact, nearly all of the teachers I know and have talked to have said that one of the great needs in education as a field is for newer teachers to have access to and continued interaction with more experienced educators over a longer period of time than is allotted during one’s student teaching days. Schools that do facilitate this kind of mentoring have vibrant departments in which all staff can learn from one another, making for a more cohesive department and a better-scaffolded learning experience for all students throughout their time at the school.

And do we really need to have a “genius grant” to figure out that more instruction time equals better academic results from our students? While they might have a reputation for watching the clock, students know when a class period is too short to allow for any mastery of the subject matter. If one of your aims is to make your students not simply know certain material but also have a degree of appreciation for it, you’re better off not zipping on through the course content at lightning speed with no time for reflection.

Perhaps the only surprising finding in this study is that schools wouldn’t need “plenty of funding” to be successful. I do wonder how schools could offer the “high-dosage tutoring” that Dobie and Fryer’s study concludes is a big factor in students’ academic success without some decent funding. Are these schools bringing on volunteer tutors who can spend hours of time after school with students without getting paid for it? That’s fine if they are, but that would be an impractical model at best if it’s one we should be trying to replicate in schools across the country.

I can’t speak for every teacher out there, but I know I personally would love a little less sensationalism when it comes to reporting on education and the changes we should or shouldn’t make to the institutions that provide it. Bringing in more voices from the teachers on the “front lines” and the students making their way through “the system” could go a long way toward providing a clearer look at what is and isn’t working in our nation’s schools. And maybe then “Everything You Know about Education” would be a lot more than what the major media outlets currently offer in their education reporting.

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  • JJ

    Thank you for this post! I just love how SOME people are consistently given loads of money and “genius grants” to replicate research that has already been done before ad nauseum. Really? A school’s “culture” is what makes it work? Not money or the fact that it’s small or a charter? It really has to do with the (wait for it…) PEOPLE in the building and their vision, sense of purpose, moral leadership, values, beliefs, norms, and ideologies?? WHAT????? Just ask scholars like T. Sergiovanni, T.Sizer, S. Sarason…or any anthropologist of education (R. McDermott, M. Pollock, or pioneer G. Spindler) for that matter. I think what really sucks is how many of these people are making money off of the business of education, publishing drivel.

    • Sarah Fidelibus

      Thanks for commenting, JJ! I had the same reaction–people who work outside of education have a limited understanding of what has been going on in terms of ed reform for quite some time. Glad you enjoyed my post and added your thoughts!