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February 18, 2008

expertise in education

(Syracuse, NY) This evening, I will participate in a panel at Syracuse University on the topic: "Who Knows Best How to Educate You for Citizenship?" My co-panelists will be Samuel Gorovitz, professor of philosophy, and George Saunders, essayist and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow. Sam Gorovitz has posed the main question:

As we follow the coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign, and of other aspects of public affairs, we encounter the many diverse views of experts of all sorts. But do these experts merit our trust? Is expertise real, or an illusion? We should consider what voices to heed, as we think about how to function as citizens in a democratic society.

That's a very general question; but the panel will be focused on education and (specifically) civic education. I will need both of my hands for the discussion, because:

On the one hand, expertise about matters like civic education is problematic. Such matters involve deep moral or ethical questions, and it is unlikely that anyone is an expert about morality (although that question has been debated since Socrates and Protagoras took it up). When we allow experts to manage civic education--or any education--the key issues inevitably become test scores and other statistics. Experts have no special credibility or legitimacy about moral matters, so the whole expert debate narrows to measurement and causation. Relying on statistics conceals the fact that tests--and all other measures, quantitative or qualitative--reflect value-judgments that are not themselves statistical or otherwise "scientific."

Furthermore, when we turn education over to experts, we reduce the scope and impact of participation by other people, especially teachers, parents, and students. Yet we know that schools perform much better when these people are fully engaged.

On the other hand, I am an expert on civic education. I don't say that arrogantly or to claim any particular knowledge. I mean it in a very literal sense: I am paid to provide what is called expertise. For example, next week I will attend a meeting to help design the National Assessment of Education Progress in Civics. Our committee, funded by the Feds and chosen for its ostensible expertise, will make decisions about what questions thousands of kids must answer. In such contexts, I am very aware that it is helpful to know certain things: psychometrics and test design; facts and concepts in political science and history; educational policy and how classrooms work. Knowing these things is better than not knowing them, and such knowledge could be called "expertise."

So there are two sides (at least) in the debate about expertise. Maybe I can help the audience to weigh the question by directing attention to three kinds of expertise in education:

1. Expertise about curriculum and instruction--about how and what to teach. This expertise is widely shared. Teachers certainly have it. Parents may have it, and even students do. Higher up the food chain, professors of education, senior administrators in k-12 school systems, textbook authors, test writers, psychologists, and policymakers claim expertise about curriculum and instruction. The question is what balance of expertise we need. To what extent is the teacher's expertise, based largely on experience, to be honored? To what extent should that expertise be influenced by specialists, such as brain scientists, or by outsiders whose job is "accountability"? The answer depends not only on our assessment of who has the best and most knowledge, but also on political questions. Yielding all judgment to students and teachers reduces accountability. But seizing all judgment from teachers makes their jobs miserable and is unlikely to produce good results.

2. Expertise about management. School systems don't only educate; they also construct and maintain buildings, handle payrolls, and negotiate with unions. In our worst-performing systems these functions are handled very badly. For instance, the Washington, DC School System (which enrolls my child and employs my wife) spends about $13,000 per child, but only $5,355 on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of "instruction" Some systems have tried to address these problems by choosing business executives for their superintendents or by hiring management consultants. For example, in Washington, the new Chancellor (who holds a Masters from the Kennedy School) has hired management consultants who have determined--very credibly--that the school system is wasting huge amounts of money by keeping schools open when their enrollments are very low. The Chancellor's plan to close schools has provoked angry resistance. Is this simply a case of valid expertise versus citizens' ignorance or short-sightedness? Maybe, but it is also likely that any real improvements in the efficiency of the DC school system will require changes in attitudes and values among school employees and parents. Many people who work in and around the system do not align their own interests at all with the interests of the kids. To change that, we will need a bottom-up movement (or possibly charismatic leadership)--not analysis by management consultants.

3. Expertise about incentives. Despite the mountains of writing that exists on curriculum, instruction, and management, those are not the main topics debated by high-level policymakers. The national debate is mainly about incentives. Liberals want to spend more money on teachers' salaries. Some liberals and some conservatives want to send money to schools where the kids pass tests and divert it from failing schools. And many conservatives want parents to be able to direct tax dollars to public or private schools that they choose for their own kids. None of these strategies says what should be taught or how. All of these strategies change the incentives or rewards. Given this approach to education, the expertise that is relevant is economic. I think it is foolish to ignore the power of incentives in determining how institutions function. However, it is also foolish to treat a school as a "black box" that takes economic inputs, such as cash, and produces measurable outcomes, such as test scores. Someone has to decide what to teach and how.

February 18, 2008 10:50 AM | category: education policy | Comments


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