(Guest post by Greg Forster)
In a number of recent discussions, we’ve tangentially touched on the subject of educational fads: some new idea will quickly gather a huge following, tons of money will pour in to support it, and then a few years later everyone will forget about it – not because anyone actually bothered to measure whether the hot idea worked, but because a new fad will come along, and the cycle will start over. As a result, the demand for improvement that ought to be producing political capital for real reforms instead gets dissipated in the mad rush for fad after fad. Meanwhile, as educators see fads come and go, they become less receptive to all proposed ideas – even ideas that would accomplish real reform and/or have solid science showing they work. It seems to be pretty widely agreed upon that this has been one of the major problems in education over the past century.
I’m tempted to say that complaining about the problem of fads has become a hot fad among reformers. But fads are things that don’t last! Complaints about the fad problem, by contrast, are perennial. Recently I’ve noticed a couple more contributions to the genre: Roger Frank Bass of Carthage College provided a sharp-edged overview of the educational fad phenomenon in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday. Meanwhile, last Monday America’s last education labor reporter noted the juxtoposition of two headlines – “The Next Big Thing: Small Schools” in Baltimore, and “Small School Experiment Doesn’t Live Up to Hopes” in Seattle. “Maybe they were just on the wrong coast,” quips Antonucci. (Come to think of it, I was shocked back in May to see Newsweek pimping small schools on the front cover – this, not months but years after the failure of the Gates Foundation’s extraordinary investment in small schools had become clear even to the Gates Foundation. There’s nothing sadder than people who desperately want to be cool but are always wearing last year’s outfit.)
What I don’t see very often, though, is reformers asking why we have this problem. There are no other socially urgent functions (from law and emergency services to the production and sale of consumer goods) that have remained basically unchanged and unimproved for a century because they’re crippled by an inability to 1) stick with one idea long enough to 2) objectively measure whether it works and 3) make a deliberate decision on whether to keep it. Only education spins its wheels this way; everywhere else in society, “fads” are either the province of children and adolescents (for whom they are probably beneficial, since they harmlessly dissipate dangerous youthful energies) or else are shunted off into the realm of “fashions,” which are not supposed to accomplish anything serious and thus do nobody any harm if they constantly change.
So what’s different about education? Well, if you’ve read your homework assignment, or if you’ve spent any time here on Jay P. Greene’s Blog (or “JPGB,” as all the kids are calling it when they text each other about it), you already know the answer: accountability for results. Educational decisionmaking exists in an “outcome vaccuum” to a greater extent than decisionmaking in just about any other field.
Of course the vast majority of people in the system are well-intentioned, but we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. Flitting from one promising idea to the next promising idea is precisely the kind of thing well intentioned people can end up doing when they lack the disciplining force imposed by firm outcome-based incentives.
“Incentives again? What, are you proposing a unified field theorem of educational problems, where everything that’s wrong with our schools traces back to this single cause?” Well, maybe not – but if there’s an alternative explanation for the unique prevalence of the fad problem in education, I’d be open to hearing it.