Can We Afford Patience in the Midst of Educational Urgency?

tortoise and the hareBy Bill Henk – Prepare yourself for a post that raises FAR more questions than it answers, folks.  Let’s start with this one:

To do or not to do?

That is THE question — in educational reform — or at least an essential one.

Frankly, it’s a question that I get asked a lot, which is not surprising given the urgency American society feels to “fix” urban education.  I hear it about school choice and charter schools.  I hear it about Milwaukee Succeeds and Schools That Can Milwaukee.  I hear it about Teach For America and City Year.  I hear it about Rocketship and Cristo Rey.  And recently, I heard it about the governance of the so-called portfolio districts in New Orleans and Memphis.

Trust me, the list goes on.  And on…

Trying to decide if these or any other educational reforms are worthy begs two related questions — HOW will we know that the  initiatives truly work and WHEN can we be certain enough to “go all in.”

The first question depends largely on method and metrics — the WHAT.  Will the approach to evaluation lead to results that are valid and reliable?   Is quantitative data all that matters or should qualitative measures be considered as well?  What indicators would be adequately compelling to convince all or most stakeholders, advocates and critics alike, of the effectiveness of an initiative?    Is it even possible to know to a virtual certainty that an educational reform is working?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we can, in fact, come close to knowing.  That premise sets up the second question — WHEN are results sufficiently definitive that we can move ahead with genuine confidence?  In turn, that question sets up several others about the pace of implementation such as:

  • How patient can we afford to be in the midst of significant educational under achievement?
  • How tolerant should we be of waiting for definitive results?
  • At what point does the promise of an initiative being effective exceed the risk that it isn’t?
  • Under what circumstances should risk trump promise?
  • Should we delay larger scale implementations until initiatives can be essentially proven to be effective?
  • How ethical is it to implement an initiative without knowing its full impact?
  • How ethical is it to withhold a promising initiative until more is known about it?
  • Could situations be dire enough that initiatives should be widely adopted on the hope that they will be successful?
  • How do we recognize and prevent a rush to judgment either way?

And there is even more to ponder beyond the pace of judging the advisability of implementing initiatives.  Other important questions include:

  • How can we be sure that an initiative will be successful in other contexts or under different circumstances?
  • To what extent can or should we rely on our common sense and intuition in evaluating an initiative?
  • Can we trust the source of the analyses to be objective?

And maybe the most telling question of all:

  • Would we be more or less demanding of definitive results if the initiatives figured to impact our own children?

Oh, I’m just full of questions; it’s answers I’m short on.  And let’s face it,  I have plenty of company.

Until we  know which reform initiatives really work and implement them rapidly and extensively enough, our odds of winning the race to eliminate the achievement gap in our urban schools remains slim.  Somehow we need to find the balance between slow and sure and quick and audacious.

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