“We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski” – Charges of Edu-nihilism and Change I Can Believe In

Welcome friends and critics from my Scientific American Guest Blog piece: Deselection of the Bottom 8%, Lessons from Eugenics for Modern School Reform. This post addresses a common concern of mine in modern education reform debates, I hope it helps continue the conversation in a productive direction.

“Defenders of the Status Quo”

Many critics of education reform, such as Diane Ravitch, are labeled as “status-quo defenders” or against any kind of change. The implication is that critics of the current strain of education reform are not merely against high stakes testing, but against any change in the system, ignoring the transformative impact of the right kind of education. What this amounts to is accusing these critics (of which Ravitch is only one) of edu-nihilism.


Don't worry Donnie, these men are Nihilists

For examples of this, see Jonathan Alter (“the forces of the status quo are still working overtime”) or Matt Yglesias (“I have no idea what she would do if she were in charge of the education department of an American city”) or hedge fund manager cum “education blogger” Whitney Tilson (“I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s for”). In most cases rather than address the substance of her criticisms Ravitch’s detractors portray her as some sort of negative, pessimistic ideologue.


There was plenty of press about that debate, and Diane Ravitch is no doubt a lightning rod.

Ulee in the pool

"That Must be Exhausting"

I am not going to defending her more here, but rather flesh out what kind of education reform I would like to see. I think she would agree with much of it, given what I have read, but unlike the above commentators (snark) I haven’t read everything she has written (books, articles, blog). Before leaving that, I agree that Ravitch’s recent popular press pieces tend to be mostly negative. Their subjects are often policies she considers flawed: test-based accountability, merit pay, emphasis on basic reading skills. But I think this is for two reasons. First, wonky policy ideas are far less likely to get published in the popular press than juicy betrayal stories. Second, the fight FOR a broad, content-rich curriculum, early childhood education and whole child approaches must begin with a fight AGAINST high-stakes reading tests, merit pay, charter schools and the other reforms du jour. Ravitch neglects the second step, because she is too busy fighting the uphill battle on the first.

Change I Can Believe In!

Without further ado: Here are a few of my top priorities:

1) Regarding educational testing: First, I am a big fan of educational testing. Jeff Karpicke (Science abstract), Roddy Roediger (review article), and Elizabeth Marsh show how good testing is a great tool for promoting learning, not just assessing it. I give many tests in my classes. I am skeptical of current high stakes, standardized testing. I don’t think standardized tests capture enough meaningful student learning to justify their continued expansion. The student learning that they do reflect is not a meaningful index of teacher effectiveness suitable for accountability measures.

Dude, Walter and Donnie

Diane Ravitch is not the issue here, Dude

I am dubious, as is Jesse Rothstein, of the efficacy of value added metrics. Tests are great tools in education, if used properly. What would using them properly look like? First, more emphasis on tests developed by local teachers. Second, use the tests for informing and diagnosing about where students are, rather than rewarding and punishing teachers. We should use standardized tests understanding that each has flaws and strengths, that student motivation has a huge impact (even on VAM), but they can still be used in combination with other indicators, to help schools allocate resources. One of my twin sons was given intensive reading instruction in 1st grade, in part because of standardized tests of reading ability. But the use of these tests was always in the context of respecting his teachers’ observations, recommendations and expertise.

2) Regarding teacher accountability, I think Jerry Weast’s PAR process in Montgomery County, recently described by Michael Winerip in the NYT, sounds like a well-designed accountability system. I am not against teacher accountability. I had a few awful teachers in my District of Columbia Public School experience, but I am not sure that they were in themselves awful, or had just spent 20 years in a system that seemed designed to beat them down. In my conversations with my fellow DCPS alums I learned that some of my favorite teachers were their least favorite. Some of my awful ones were once good. I don’t see the logic in a system which regards teacher talent as fixed and teacher experience as irrelevant. I think we should shift away from pure accountability, into an apprenticeship and mentoring model. Formal apprenticeships, or residencies, such as this one with the Aspire schools, strike me as a good idea. The reason this is happening with a charter school is not “innovation” but money. I am glad to see the federal government get interested. I think education schools should continue requiring some coursework, but should have an extended residency or apprenticeship as well. The current system of student teaching, (at least as I saw it through my wife’s eyes) was not robust enough (not long enough, little support for mentoring teachers) to make it an effective mentoring program.

3) Regarding curriculum, I would broaden our educational goals to de-emphasize basic reading and math skills and include knowledge and competence in science, social studies, history and art, as well as practical skills like fixing your car and basic personal finance. I am in favor of teaching more philosophy, psychology, architecture or library science taught in high school, if the teacher is interested and supported. Science and social studies (and all of the others) lose when we double the time for basic reading and math. Further, basic reading and math are NOT prerequisites for other knowledge. My daughter who is not yet reading, already knows that Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt were US Presidents, through her bizarre fixation on a tourist kids book about Washington DC. (She also knows that “B is for Bureau of Engraving and Printing” lol). This goal would require backing off a little on the “college for all” goals, and strengthening the vocational education programs which have recently been cut in urban school systems. You can see more of my thoughts on this in my review of Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford.

4) I would elevate student motivation as an explicit goal. Students love of learning is not well-measured by reading and math standardized tests, but I do think that it can be measured and we should try. I think we have swung a bit too far the other way in college (although check out the infamous Seven Solutions from Texas, and a good response, if you think student evaluations already have too much sway). But I think treating the love of reading as an educational outcome is a good idea. Every K through 2nd grade teacher has this as their own goal, but it is hampered, not helped by current reform schemes. We should do this with caution (attendance is not necessarily the best metric for motivation) but we should include it in our calculus of what makes a good educational experience. I would hope that this would result in more creative assignments, projects, and the like. But if your students enjoy the mastery they feel from plunking away at math problems from the Khan Academy, that is one indication of success.

5) I think a critical part of my reform efforts would be to step back and let teachers, principals and local leaders have more freedom to develop their craft. I am a cognitive scientist and an educator. I am constantly trying to apply my knowledge of the science of learning to my classroom. But teaching is not a science, it is a craft. There is no formula about how to teach any subject or any grade. I am an introvert, so I am far less likely to find effective teaching through charismatic performance than through well-designed projects and personal attention and feedback. But charismatic lectures can be a strength for someone else. In the realm of K-12 education, more local control might result in curriculum reflecting regional differences (maybe even more intelligent design). I am ok with that in the short term. I actually think that science teachers will generally fight for evolution, even in Kansas and Mississippi. I think the role of the federal government should be to support and inform, rather than impose strict guidelines.

Finally, I think the above reforms, despite ignoring teacher quality, would do more to improve it than targeted efforts to fire bad teachers. More freedom, more support, and more mentorship would do a better job of training teachers and also a better job recruiting talented and motivated new ones. This is far closer to the system we have in academic science, an apprenticeship system, which allows us to gain specific knowledge of our own problems. I love teaching. I enjoy any chance I get to teach K-12 about perception or illusions. But I chose to spend seven years in grad school to get an academic job not for the bounty of riches, but for the freedom that comes with being a professional.

I could say more (on science education, or tracking, or homework) but I will leave it there for now. I will close with the obvious limitation that none of these ideas are my own. Here are some personal touchstones when it comes to my personal convictions on teaching, education, and education reform.



  • and last, but never least, the always insightful and incisive Rachel Levy at All Things Education who has been a wonderful discussion partner for all things education, as well as all other things.
  • About Cedar Riener

    College psychology professor, husband, father.
    This entry was posted in education. Bookmark the permalink.

    7 Responses to “We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski” – Charges of Edu-nihilism and Change I Can Believe In

    1. Stuart Buck says:

      “. Second, the fight FOR a broad, content-rich curriculum, early childhood education and whole child approaches must begin with a fight AGAINST high-stakes reading tests, merit pay, charter schools and the other reforms du jour.”

      This is a odd jumble of policies that aren’t necessarily opposed at all. For instance, it’s backwards to say that the fight for a content-rich curriculum means opposing charter schools. The exact opposite is the case: charter schools are proportionately about 20 times more likely to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum, for example. There are many examples of charter schools that are “progressive” in curriculum as well, if that’s your preference. And the whole reason that KIPP schools lengthen the school day/week is precisely so that they can spend extra time on reading and math (in which many children are behind) WITHOUT having to sacrifice anything else in the curriculum.

      If there’s any evidence that charter schools are less, rather than more, likely to have a “broad, content-rich curriculum,” I’d like to know of it.

      • Cedar Riener says:

        Hi Stuart, thanks for commenting. I agree that the policies are not necessarily opposed. And I am not against charter schools in the same way that I am against merit pay based on standardized tests. I should have clarified that.
        That is interesting that charters are 20 times more likely to adopt Core Knowledge. I hadn’t heard that, although I did hear of the recent success of the pre-K reading program. I’d welcome a citation of your 20 times more likely claim, though I don’t really doubt it. From what I see over at the Core Knowledge website, it seems like an even mix.
        I don’t think that KIPP is an awful thing, and I do think it has a role in the ecology of our education system. It seems that each individual KIPP school has some autonomy about curriculum, but I’ll admit I recoiled when I heard of “non-fiction studies.” I don’t know enough to argue that KIPP itself is a bad thing for education, but with its boosters who claim it to be revolutionary and magical.
        I think what I wanted to say with that sentence that you quoted was that while many policies could in principle co-exist, school leaders make priorities, and there is only so much time and resources. In DC, Rhee’s priorities were clear, and they did not include curriculum.

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    3. Stuart Buck says:

      My citation is my own calculation about a year ago based on Core Knowledge’s own claims as to how many schools were using their curriculum: .3% of public schools (308 schools out of 95,000 or so), versus 5.8% of charter schools (293 out of 5,000). The percentage of charters is still low, but it’s about 19 times as high. The numbers may have changed modestly since then, but they’d still be in the ballpark. The only way there could be an even mix of charters and publics among the Core Knowledge schools is if charters are way more likely to adopt that curriculum.

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