Invoking “Oliver Rule (Expanded)” for Education Reform Debate

While it is becoming increasingly common and frustrating that the most perceptive views of political and public claims and policies come from satirical programs and their figure-heads (as I have noted recently), John Oliver’s skit about the current ways the mainstream media present the climate change debate can serve well how we proceed with the education reform debate.

Oliver’s climate change debate skit highlights that by always having one FOR and one AGAINST, popular media debates distort the current state of the field; for example, Oliver notes that 97% of climate scientists support that humans impact climate change, thus he sets up a debate between 97 FOR and 3 AGAINST. The journalistic quest for “fair and balanced” (one FOR and one AGAINST), ironically, creates a distorted view of fields of knowledge.

Guideline 1 for the “Oliver Rule,” then, is that all public debates must accurately represent the current ratio of perspectives within the field.

Embedded in Oliver’s skit, however, is another recognition of the tension between democracy (everyone deserves a voice) and expertise.

Guideline 2 for the “Oliver Rule” must be a slight expansion of Oliver’s initial premise: All who wish to contribute to the debate must be allowed to contribute, but each voice must also establish his/her context for contributing, his/her expertise and experience with the topic, and his/her investment in or potential for benefitting from the stated position.

If we apply, for example, the “Oliver Rule (Expanded)” to the on-going debate about value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating and retaining teachers, the debate would look quite different.

For anyone making a public claim (such as Op-Eds or blogs) or advocating new policy (such as by political leaders or think tanks) endorsing VAM, those advocates should have to establish the following:

  • Formal study and/or experience in education.
  • Investments in research or policy related to VAM.
  • Potential for profiting from VAM policy.
  • Whether or not he/she will be professionally or personally impacted by the policy.

But, more importantly, as with the Oliver skit on climate change, the VAM debate must accurately represent the current knowledge-base on VAM. And that would have to reveal the following:

  • The research base still identifies VAM-based teacher evaluation as experimental—not ready for wide-scale or high-stakes implementation.
  • The research base also recommends when ready for implementation, VAM should be only a small part (often endorsed at only about 10-15%) of a larger range of evidence for evaluating teachers.
  • Commitments to VAM must be revealed as a large investment in a greatly increased testing program that will pre- and post-test every student for every teacher; otherwise, the process can never be equitable. (This huge investment must be framed in the context of “return on investment” for, now, an experimental process.)

If we begin to demand the “Oliver Rule (Expanded)” for the wide range of education reform policies currently being endorsed—VAM, charter schools, Common Core, high-stakes testing, etc.—the debates themselves would look  much different, and as a result, public understanding and support for those policies would likely change dramatically as well.

Just as the overwhelming majority of climate science supports human-made climate change, the overwhelming majority of educational research reveals that charter schools are nearly indistinguishable from public schools (both in student outcomes and in the trend toward re-segregation), that VAM is inconsistent and not ready for high-stakes implementation, that standards reform has not and likely will not address our greatest educational needs, and that high-stakes testing causes more harm than good. But the public and political debate—again as with the climate change debate—greatly misrepresents those bodies of research.

Also, as Oliver detailed brilliantly, climate science has actually been dealt a disservice by Bill Nye because his expertise and relentless commitment to his field (all of which must be commended) have been distorted in the simplistic FOR and AGAINST format in the mainstream media.

In the education reform debate, Diane Ravitch has become our Nye. We need Ravitch to continue, of course, and she has made huge strides in our message.

But we must now make sure that when Ravitch (or any single representative of evidence-based education policy) speaks, the public knows what ratio of the evidence-base she represents.

As Oliver has highlighted, yes, everyone voice counts, but not every voice counts the same.


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