In a blog titled “To my critics” as a follow up to his critique of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Errors, Grant Wiggins seeks to clarify his central arguments:

My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference….

Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control. Am I denying or tolerating poverty? Of course not. I decry the increased poverty and wealth inequality in this country. I vote democratic and give to liberal causes such as MoveOn and SPLC. I agree with Diane that there are nasty people and groups trying to subvert public education for their own ideologies and gain.

In this blog post, Wiggins returns to citing and praising the work of New Zealand scholar John Hattie. Wiggins has endorsed Hattie’s work in earlier blogs, such as:

I have been a fan of John Hattie’s work ever since I encountered Visible Learning. Hattie has done the most exhaustive meta-analysis in education. Thanks to him, we can gauge not only the relative effectiveness of almost every educational intervention under the sun but we can compare these interventions on an absolute scale of effect size.

I came to this debate and the connection between Wiggins and Hattie during a Twitter exchange with Wiggins. And as Twitter discussions go, I think we started off contentious, but eventually reached a genuine exchange; however, I could not fully or adequately explore what needs to be explored on Twitter so I began to research Hattie, and I want to place this recent exchange with Wiggins in a much larger context, one that includes the apparently growing interest in Hattie’s work.

My short and opening point is this: If in-school factors, notably teacher quality, are in fact the most pressing issues in education reform, and if in-school factors are the only things within our control, and if we are committed to accountability based on standards and high-stake testing as the only reform paradigm, then Wiggins (and maybe Hattie) would be credible.

Ultimately, however, Wiggins and Hattie represent even more doing the wrong things the right ways.

While I share the frustration expressed by Jersey Jazzman about the implied and direct claims Wiggins makes about teachers—in our Twitter exchange Wiggins was comfortable stating that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse because he “hears it all the time”—and I also have grown tired of education reform punditry that seems imbalanced toward teacher bashing and marginalizing further the teaching profession, I want to focus on the limitations of in-school only reform and measuring teacher quality, and then highlight that the teacher quality debate fails for the same reason the push for Common Core fails (the real-world implementation has always failed, and it will fail this time also).

Now, let me go back to my first encounter with Wiggins, which was his co-authored Understanding by Design. As part of the process for my adding gifted and talented to my teaching credentials, I took a seminar that used Understanding.

Like many educators, I found the backward design model compelling at first. The best aspects of Wiggins and McTighe’s work, I think, are their criticisms of traditional practices:

  • Traditional approaches to teaching focused on objectives and teachers often were careless about matching their assessments to those objectives. In short, Wiggins and McTighe made a valid case that teaching was too often disjointed among objectives, classroom practices, and assessment.
  • The best point about traditional practices offered by Wiggins and McTighe was confronting that testing in many classes was essentially a “gotcha” experience for students. Students were left, they argued, either partially or completely blind to what was being asked of them.

I shared then and do now hold serious concerns about traditional pedagogy and assessment. In fact, I have been my entire career a strong advocate for systemic educational reform. I think we have failed and continue to fail the promise of universal public education as a foundational institution among a free people.

And there is the problem.

Wiggins and McTighe’s solutions—backward design, sharing detailed rubrics with students, etc.—are certainly the right way to do teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes.

But teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes is the wrong paradigm for democratic and liberatory education; thus, embracing understanding by design is simply doing the wrong things the right ways.

When schools have failed and when they do fail, they are teacher- and content-centered. The entire accountability era has intensified the very worst of education, and while the best way to do accountability education based on standards and testing is something like what Wiggins and McTighe offer, this commitment fails to step back even further and recognize what Ravitch and Wiggins’s critics are acknowledging: U.S. society and schools are plagued with inequity, and in order to overcome the negative consequences of inequity (one of which is low achievement by some students), social and school reform must address directly that inequity.

To put it in simple and direct terms: A powerful and identifiable problem in schools is inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers; instead of focusing on measuring, ranking, and rewarding teachers based on test scores (all shown in research to cause more harm than good), we should first address that students with the most need (high-poverty students, English language learners, special needs students, minority students) have equitable access to experienced and certified teachers as affluent and white students do.

Wiggins has positioned himself on some tenuous ground with claims that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse, that outlier data somehow show what should be normal, and that Hattie’s research is justification for his positions. But the larger problem here is that Wiggins and the entire education reform movement over the past thirty years are trapped in a flawed solution model for a discounted set of problems.

Next, even if we conceded that we want to do the wrong things the right ways, Wiggins and Hattie represent the exact problem with Common Core: Once these grand ideas are implemented—and that implementation is guaranteed to be a failure—the good intentions do not matter.

For example understanding by design has become an industry for ASCD:

Thousands of educators across the country use the Understanding by Design framework, created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, to get a handle on standards, align programs to assessments, and guide teachers in implementing a standards-based curriculum that leads to student understanding and achievement.

Harvey Daniels’s experience with the commodification of literature circles and best practice is a representative cautionary tale about the negative consequences of reducing pedagogy and educational research to programs, consultation workshops, and how-to guides. Daniels, speaking at a state English teachers’ convention, explained that the terms “literature circles” and “best practices” can be found splattered across books and on web sites to such an extent that the original intent of both has been lost.

And here is the crux of the problem with Hattie as well as Wiggins endorsing Hattie.

Wiggins and Hattie share the charge that in-school reform is the only thing in the control of teachers, but they also share central roles of influence —direct and indirect—in the education reform bureaucracy and industry.

Hattie’s influence in New Zealand, in fact, prompted this:

The political and media stir caused by professor John Hattie’s research on student achievement has prompted a group of academics to look closely at his work.

The authors were particularly concerned that politicians might use Hattie’s work to justify ill-informed policy decisions.

Hattie’s work [1] is poised to support in NZ and the U.S. increasing class size and implementing merit pay, for example—both of which are not supported by large bodies of research.

Wiggins and Hattie are trapped, then, in the measurable and the visible—paralyzed by a world in which we focus on control.

As Neil Gaiman has stated, however, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Ultimately, Wiggins and Hattie are offering the right ways to do the wrong things, again. Just as Common Core and new high-stakes testing are digging a failed accountability hole that much deeper.

We can do better.

Part of better, then, is yet more moratoriums.

We need moratoriums on educational research, educational consultation, and educational materials—as well as an end to our fetish with testing and measurement.

If these moratoriums seem extreme, let me point out a couple things:

  1. In 1947, Lou LaBrant wrote: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”
  2. The exact same fact exists today: Every major element of the education reform movement is either not supported by research or is directly refuted by research.

We currently have ample evidence about the problems in education (and society) and we have ample evidence of how to address those problems.

Spending millions and even billions of dollars on more measures of teacher quality and student achievement is an inexcusable waste of time and money.


Poverty as one of the most profound aspects of scarcity cripples human capacities. As Mullainathan and Shafir detail, scarcity drains anyone’s bandwidth (mental capacty): “Scarcity captures the mind”:

Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds….

Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth…

One cannot take a vacation from poverty. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure. (pp. 7, 13, 148, 155)

To place this research on scarcity/poverty in the context of in-school only reform:

Children cannot take a vacation from poverty during the school day. Simply deciding poverty is beyond our control during the school day is a myopic option for failure.

Claiming poverty lies beyond our control is simply false. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has evidence that ending money scarcity will eliminate poverty and by doing so academic improvement follows:

The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.

If we want better teachers and higher student achievement, let’s, then, stop wasting money on the unsupported array of in-school only, teacher-centered, standards-and-testing driven reforms, and directly address poverty in children’s lives and inequity in their schools.

Continuing down the path Wiggins and Hattie advocate, we remain mired in doing the wrong things the right ways. Let’s take a better path.

[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work: