Monday, February 9, 2009

Magic bullets are for werewolves, not education reform

My mom passed along a recent piece by Malcolm Gladwell on education reform in The New Yorker. At the very least, the article does a good job of provoking thought and discussion, even if (especially if) one disagrees with him.

Gladwell is right about the problem of selecting teachers when there are no reliable predictors of quality, but the comparison to financial services is a bit misleading. "What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?" is the wrong question to be asking. If it were just a question of spending as much money on teaching candidates as we do on financial advisers, then it would have been solved already. Because teaching has so much more social significance than how we manage our money, there are different political pressures that would come into play.

Imagine what would happen to a financial services firm if their shareholders had a bunch of other priorities above making money. There are lots of self-described "single-issue" voters, and I have yet to hear anyone present a way insulate a teacher selection process like the one Gladwell suggests from the pressures of taxpayers who would reject, say, all teachers who believe in evolution or anyone who opposes gay marriage. Even post-Obama, there are lot of people who would be rejected by most voters based solely on who they are, and it would be a disaster if teachers were subject to the same sort of social/political litmus tests.

That said, the status quo is not working, and the system does need reform. The trouble is that the issue is far too complex to be solved by any idea that is simple enough to be summed up in an Op-Ed piece. I understand the temptation to throw out the existing dysfunctional system and start over based on a new model, but as satisfying as that might be, those sort of revolutionary changes always create more problems than they solve. Precisely because education is so important, it will take careful, incremental changes, and the first step is for everyone to understand that there is no magic bullet.