Betsy DeVos, Charter Schools, Education — April 13, 2019 at 1:16 pm

When Betsy DeVos “Likes” Your “Research”…

Image courtesy of S.L. Johnson. Blog:

The New York Post recently published an eye-catching headline (“Case closed: Charter schools deliver more education ‘bang’ for the buck“) about a new “research study” (more on that in a bit…) from Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf, from the Walton Family Foundation-funded “Department of Education Reform”, not to be confused with an actual school or college of education, that…you know…prepares teachers…or…teaches stuff, on the…checks notes…efficiency of charter schools?

Now, when someone starts talking to me about “efficiency” in education, I know they don’t know the first thing about education…or kids…or teachers…or learning. Because education is not about being “efficient”–it’s about helping children become who they want to become, and building relationships along the way. And there’s a huge, school-shaped gulf of difference between the two.

If you’re doubting me, try this little thought experiment: think about something you really value and like to do…playing golf, enjoying a good meal, spending time with loved ones, curling up with a good book in front of a roaring fire in a cabin next to a lake. Got yours? Good.

Now, think about whether it would ever occur to you to think about, or concern yourself, with doing that thing “efficiently.”

Would you try to spend as little time as possible doing that thing, thereby maximizing your ROI (“return on investment,” a business term, not an educational term, and one of the main “research questions” in the “research study” here)?

Or would you take your own sweet time, and do that thing in as gloriously an inefficient and even messy a way as possible, spending decadently languorous amounts of time, luxuriating in every bite of that delicious meal, savoring every minute on the golf course with your friends, and reveling in every second spent with your close friends and family?

Would your goal be “efficiency”? Would you add up the dollars spent on that meal, and divide it by the number of minutes it took you to consume it, and compute a “Cost-Effectiveness” ratio to determine your Return on Investment? Because–and I’m not kidding–that’s pretty much what DeAngelis and Wolf have done here, in their “research study.”

I want to thank our friend Peter Greene for reading and summarizing this study in this terrific post, mostly so that the rest of us don’t have to. Because aside from being a trite, poorly-conceived, and silly waste of time (don’t you wonder what the RoI was on this one for DeAngelis and Wolf?), DeAngelis and Wolf’s report focused on…nothing:

Or, in the terms of this new study, there’s no reason to believe that what they are calling “returns” on investment are returns at all. Not only are test scores and barely-supportable score-based fairy tales about the future the wrong returns to focus on in education, they aren’t even real returns at all. DeAngelis and Wolf haven’t just focused on the wrong thing– they’ve focused on a nothing. This isn’t just zooming in on toenails– it’s zooming in on unicorn toenails.

At its core–if one truly exists in this empty little exercise–DeAngelis and Wolf are simply parroting one of the foundational tropes of the education reform mantra: If you don’t understand something, slap some stats on it and see if that turns unicorns into ponies.

Other examples of this Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins approach to constructing meaning out of thin air include:

  • “reading on grade level”
  • “months of learning”
  • and the infamous, “return on investment”

Each of these phrases is nothing more than a way to make something that’s not easily captured by metrics seem measurable, and therefore easily understandable, by those who don’t really understand that thing in the first place.

Children don’t “read on grade level” anymore than they “eat on grade level” or “care about their friends on grade level.” Anyone who has actually helped a child learn how to read, or play a music instrument, or ride a bike, knows that kids will accomplish these goals “when they are ready.” Not by “grade level.”

So, kids will read when they have a need to read, and when what they are reading is relevant to their lives. Not when they are supposed to read as measured by their grade level. Can we set our own goals as teachers for when we introduce various literacy concepts to our students? Sure. And teachers do that, every day in every public school in the nation.

But the only thing that measuring reading by “grade level” does is make a lot of kids–and teachers–feel dumb when they are not, and turn reading into drudgery instead of the life-long pursuit of joy, knowledge, and enjoyment it’s meant to be.

And trying to measure learning by “months” is like trying to cook a piece of meat faster by sticking more thermometers in it. You can derive a number from it, but to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “that number is not telling you what you think it’s telling you.”

Now, it’s also worth mentioning here that this “research” was released directly from the authors, which is not…um…the way that research is disseminated to the world. Researchers know that in order for their work to be viewed as valid and reliable, not to mention credible, it must be subjected to peer-review and shared through reputable journals as articles or reports, or as presentations at scholarly conferences. And there must be transparency as to the funding, if any, behind the project, and any possible conflicts of interest on the part of the authors that may influence the credibility of their results.

I also find it fascinating that economists and political scientists (like the authors of this report) first seemed to turn their attention to education as a field worthy of their “study” right around the same time that investment bankers and hedge fund managers discovered that charter schools were an attractive vehicle for complicated real-estate scams, and other opportunities for financial improprieties and hijinks.

This “research report” was not peer reviewed by a journal’s editorial board, or published in a journal, or shared at an academic meeting, or vetted in any way by the profession. It was pitched to the NY Post, bypassing even the faintest veneer of academic respectability–or journalistic integrity, evidently.

It’s basically what two guys who work for the Walton family want you to think about charter schools–and BTW, these are two guys who never studied education or taught in one of the traditional public schools they are convinced are so bad they ought to be replaced with virtual online charter schools for kids as young as pre-school age.

Or, as the inestimable Mr. Greene says, it’s a piece of “academic-flavored PR for ed reform and the charter industry” to trot out in the hope that some ignorant rube will uncritically endorse it, share it on social media, and use her national platform as Secretary of Education to advance these ideas as support for her dangerous and dishonest agenda.

CC image by Michael Vadon | Flickr