(Guest post by Greg Forster)
What strikes me most about the exchange is that Walsh begins her response by essentially giving away the store to Jay:
The idea of encouraging experimentation in the education sector makes sense: if you don’t know what works, let a thousand flowers bloom. And the field of teacher education would appear to be particularly fertile ground. After all, there’s been a common presumption that no one knows what works.
Then, bizarrely, she argues that because Jay is right that we need to have more experimentation and “let a thousand flowers bloom,” we should impose regulations that restrict experimentation and limit how many kinds of flowers are allowed to bloom:
Teacher prep is the Wild West of higher education…This level of disarray raises an important question: How much experimentation should we tolerate, given what’s at stake?…No doubt there is a difference between the kind of experimentation that Jay is calling for and teacher prep’s current modus operandi of throwing anything against a wall and seeing if it sticks—or worse, not even caring if it sticks, just doing it because a professor has decided he’s right, no matter the evidence to the contrary. But since the field itself is not rigorously gathering data on what works — and the risk for the students of new teachers is so great — it makes sense to establish reasonable guidelines as to what should go into teacher training to ensure, at the very least, that new teachers “do no harm.”
No, that’s the opposite of true. If we don’t know what works because we aren’t collecting data, and our top priority is to do no harm, the very last thing we should do is impose new regulations! The whole point of regulations is to prevent people from doing things that we know do harm. We impose lead regulations on paint manufacturers because we know putting lead in paint does harm. We impose medical trial regulations on medicine companies because we know selling untested medicines does harm. We impose broken glass regulations on fast food restaurants because we know putting broken glass in hamburgers does harm. (At least until you grind it up so fine that it’s no longer sharp, like they do in McDonald’s milkshakes.)
Imposing regulations when you don’t know what works is the quickest path to doing lots and lots of harm – and, by the way, it also prevents you from collecting data to find out what works (which is what we ought to be doing) because you can’t collect data on methods you aren’t allowed to try.