Thursday, October 22, 2009

Has the Dismal Science Cast a Pall Over Education?

By Claus von Zastrow on October 16, 2009

Have economists brought nothing but woe upon public schools? Has all the talk of efficiency, productivity, merit pay and market incentives poisoned the field? Well, it depends. Do those economists have a clear vision for how their favored policies will affect teaching and learning?

According to two articles published yesterday, the answer so far has been yes and no.

The Harvard Education Letter paints a rosier picture of "the invisible hand" than you might expect. The HEL reminds us, for example, that economist James Heckman has done about as much as anyone to push early childhood education. In the process, he has set the stage for richer conversations about program quality. Overall, economists can spur us to pay closer attention the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

Then there's Russ Whitehurst's recent article: Don't Forget Curriculum! He says economists just don't get the importance of curriculum. Here's the money quote from his piece: "[P]olicy makers who cut their teeth on policy reforms in the areas of school governance and management rather than classroom practice...may be oblivious to curriculum for the same reason that Bedouin don’t think much about water skiing.”

Whitehurst elaborates:

The disciplinary training, job experience, professional networks, and intuitions about what is important hardly overlap between governance and curriculum reformers. For the governance types, teaching resolves to the question of how to get more qualified teachers into the classroom.... For the curriculum reformer, teaching is about specific interactions between students and their curriculum materials as shaped by teachers. For a curriculum reformer, teachers with higher IQs and better liberal arts educations are desirable, to be sure. But just as people with musical talent have to work hard to develop musical skills and have available to them exceptional compositions if they are to be successful musical performers, so too bright aspiring teachers have to learn a lot about how to teach and have good curriculum materials if they are to be effective with students. Thus being smart is the starting point of becoming a good teacher for a curriculum reformer whereas it is often the end point of governance reforms.

Oddly enough, it's the folks who spend all their time on incentives and governance who can lose sight of effectiveness. Whitehurst argues that the economists have missed the boat on curriculum, "the content and sequence of the experiences that are intended to be delivered to students in formal course work." The curriculum includes teaching materials and support for using those materials in the classroom.

If you ask Whitehurst, that's where reformers should spend their money. Curriculum doesn't have all the flash of charter schools or merit pay, and it gets barely a whisper from the think tank crowd. But strong curriculum can do more than charters or merit pay combined, he claims.

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