Everyone’s an Expert on Education (Not!)

So an assistant professor of finance references a physicist from 1974 in order to advocate for the research of a current Harvard economist—what do you imagine the field is that this assistant professor of finance is addressing?

Well, of course, it is A tutorial on improving education by Noah Smith, who is also a freelance writer for Bloomberg.

Once again, we are treated by mainstream media to the drumbeat that everyone’s an expert on education (not). [1]

Alas, if truth be told (and it shan’t about education from the flurry of so-called media-darling experts on education among whom none have any experience or degrees in education), Smith’s op-ed is mostly a jumbled mess of hokum.

Smith opens by citing from 1974, a practice virtually no one would accept in academia within the hard and social sciences since we tend to expect research, o let’s say, within the last decade at least.

Ironically, Smith is simply highlighting that there has been a long-standing false narrative about educational research among those outside the field of education.

Like sociology, education has suffered under the nonsensical “scientific” mantra as long as people have been doing educational research (easily for over a century, in fact, establishing a robust and powerful foundation of what we do know about teaching and learning).

Smith frames his op-ed with “physicist” (o, physics!) and the concluding smug-a-thon:

Finally, education research is becoming more of a science than a pseudoscience.

The answers we get from experiments may be less bold and confident than the answers we’d get from simply stating convictions or doing sloppy, compromised research.

But in the end, if anything will lead us to truth, it’s careful science.

That’s right, please note the headline; this is a tutorial by an assistant professor of finance citing a physicist and endorsing the research of a Harvard (Harvard!) economist.

Stupid educators! Stupid educational researchers!

But the real kicker in all this is the whole lovefest over the work of Roland Fryer; Smith argues: “Fryer’s paper is a gold mine for education policy makers, and anyone interested in school reform.”

Well, about all this sciencey gold mine? Bruce Baker has some insight on the brilliance that is Fryer on education:

A series of studies from Roland Fryer and colleagues have explored the effectiveness of specific charter school models and strategies, including Harlem Childrens’ Zone (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009), “no excuses” charter schools in New York City (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011), schools within the Houston public school district (Apollo 20) mimicking no excuses charter strategies (Fryer, 2011, Fryer, 2012), and an intensive urban residential schooling model in Baltimore, MD (Curto & Fryer, 2011)….

The broad conclusion across these studies is that charter schools or traditional public schools can produce dramatic improvements to student outcomes by implementing no excuses strategies and perhaps wrap around services, and that these strategies come at relatively modest marginal cost. Regarding the benefits of the most expensive alternative explored – residential schooling in Baltimore (at a reported $39,000 per pupil) – the authors conclude that no excuses strategies of extended day and year, and intensive tutoring are likely more cost effective.

But, each of these studies suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures. [bold emphasis added]

It seems that, gosh, Fryer is rolling out quite a bit of bad science, bad research on education—what Smith calls a “gold mine.” Baker ends with this note in fact:

NOTE: I would caution however, that we have little basis for asserting that a 20 to 60% increase in per pupil spending would be more efficiently spent on these strategies than on such alternatives as class size reduction and/or expansion of early childhood programs. These comparisons simply haven’t been made, and Fryer’s attempt at such a comparison (NYC “no excuses” study) is woefully inadequate. [bold emphasis added] Pundits who argue that class size reduction is an especially expensive and inefficient alternative seem willing to ignore outright the substantial additional costs of the strategies promoted in Fryer’s work, arriving at the erroneous conclusion (with Fryer’s full support) [bold emphasis added] that class size reduction is ineffective and costly, and extended school time and intensive tutoring are costless and highly effective.

And what? Smith makes a case during his lovefest for Fryer that class size reduction is effective, and Fryer says otherwise?

O, never mind. Smith’s op-ed proves to be the thing that is jumbled, the thing that we should not heed in any way—unless we see this op-ed like the hundreds before and hundreds yet to come: nonsensical pseudo-expert commentary from any field other than education offering their smug (and flawed) pronouncements to us lowly educators and educational researchers.

At the risk of being smug myself, please, o please, all you experts out there compelled by the media to hold forth on education, stick to your field and extend the respect we deserve to those of us who have spent our careers in education in the same way you would like your own expertise and field to be treated.

See Also

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy

[1] My refrain here is a purposeful allusion to e.e. cummings since we sit still in National Poetry month—his “pity this busy monster, manunkind,/not.”

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