The Obama Administration has created a $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund (i3)— its snappy nickname undoubtedly intended to invoke the excitement of a Silicon Valley start-up. “We’re making an unprecedented investment in cutting-edge ideas that will produce the next generation of school reforms,” Secretary Duncan said on announcing the i3 effort.
The idea that some sort of radically new education innovation will close the minority achievement gap and raise the entire country’s science and math capacities is the most enduring delusion in modern education circles. The field is dedicated to thinking up an endless series of diversions, ideally involving information technology, that distract attention from reinstating the only practices that have ever worked: a teacher teaching actual content, classroom discipline, self-discipline, memorization, drilling, study. Such traditional (and cheap!) ideas are attacked from the left by the proponents of progressive pedagogy and ignored by clueless corporate types who are oblivious to the essential behavioral underpinnings of learning.
Thus, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s education foundation pushes the gimmick of “smart boards” as an achievement gap panacea; New York City school chancellor Joel Klein rails about the lack of sexy technological change in the classroom:
In any field but ours, if you fell asleep 50 years ago and woke up today, you wouldn’t recognize what’s going on. In education, if you fell asleep 50 years ago, you still have the same discussions. The use of technology to transform the work, to bring in distance learning, to enable kids to do things online, all of this is stuff we’re doing here in the city.
To little effect, one might add.
Along the lines of “smart boards,” every state’s education bureaucracy is obsessed with “graphic organizers”—charts and diagrams in which students are supposed to visually represent the content of their reading and their own thinking. Textbooks exhort students to “make connections,” “visualize,” and “predict.” It is unlikely that the least-gifted students, to whom such meta-cognitive instructions are directed, will be inclined towards self-referential thought, however. The only way for lagging students to overcome the vocabulary deficits and poor writing skills that plague them is to read, read, and then read some more—and then be held accountable for what they have read.
The conservative obsession with school choice, treating education as a consumer market, suffers from similar blind spots. For the last fifteen years, conservatives have put all their energies into advocating for vouchers, while ignoring the far more important imperative of restoring teacher-centered learning and a content-rich curriculum.
The country could make as much progress in closing the achievement gap as it ever will simply by restoring traditional classroom methods. The KIPP schools are the best example of that insight. I doubt, though, that the federal government is about to spend $650 million only to reach the conclusion that actually doing your homework, not putting your head on your desk during class, and reading books that contain knowledge are the most successful education “innovations” that we can come up with. The education-industrial complex would collapse should that simple truth take hold.
Meanwhile, outside of i3 precincts, good ol’ fashion’ pork-barrel spending gets a stimulus.