Taking the Easy Way Out
Yesterday, education blogger Kevin Carey sharply rebuked people who peddle simplistic solutions to difficult problems schools face:
All of this would be merely aggravating if this kind of sad excuse for policy debate didn't have a real, detrimental impact on the lives of students. When you tell people that large problems can be solved with simplistic, nominally clever policy solutions, you're implicitly raising a question: "If it's so easy, why haven't we done it already?" That in turns breeds cynicism and mistrust, a jaded worldview in which large social problems are either fundamentally unsolvable or hostage to venal politicians who won't do the right thing even though the answer is so obvious that anyone with a lick of common sense can see it. And once you get there, the temptation is strong to throw up your hands and worry about something else.
Carey is scolding Tom Friedman for advocating the particularly silly idea that states could address the dropout problem by making driver's licenses contingent on high school graduation. But his comments have much broader resonance than that. Many in the national media have made a habit of portraying popular new reform ideas as sure-fire strategies for dramatic school improvement. People skeptical of those reforms must therefore be obstructionists and villains. As I've noted before, Jonathan Alter, Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks have pushed this storyline especially aggressively.
As Carey suggests, that story is very dangerous, because it breeds cynicism and disengagement. If we can't use the miracle cure, why then the situation is hopeless! There have been shades of this thinking in national op-eds and articles portraying high-profile reformers as the drop-dead last chance for urban schools. (See, for example, the Washington Post editorial page, which referred to Chancellor Rhee as the "best, perhaps last, hope" for DC Schools.) It's never wise to pin all our hopes on one reformer or a limited set of reform strategies, especially when research on solutions is sparse.
Carey reminds us that tough problems require complex solutions: "The high school dropout problem is serious business. We can do better, if we focus on improved funding, leadership, teachers, curriculum and assessments tied to high standards, alignment with higher education, integration of social services, virtual high schools, and many other things"-like professional development and public engagement. When solutions are so multifaceted, it's harder to tell tales about villains in the way of progress.
There's more than enough responsibility to go around.
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