Relying on Magic: The Foundations of Would-be Education Reformers

With high unction, priests of educational reform often proclaim their notions are grounded on a strong scientific base. Embarrassingly, the President and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have made similar assertions of scientific footings, notwithstanding the failure to actually support those claims.

Science, of course, has certain advantages, in that its proofs are subject to verification, are based on careful observations, must generally be replicable, and must follow commonly accepted designs and rules of evidence. But science has the pesky drawback of not necessarily confirming the answers we want to hear. There are all those awkward things to explain like reformer Joel Klein claiming success as an “established fact” while Arne Duncan says 83 percent of the schools are failing.

Magic, however, has been discovered to be a far more flexible and useful tool for supporting policy reforms. Contrary scientific findings can be brushed away with the same untroubled ease as an end-of-worlder explaining why the apocalypse didn’t happen last week.

As magical notions gain political traction, a supporting “science” is retro-invented. Contemporary retro-science includes reports that provide squishy, oblique and leading evidence on how untrained teachers will do as well or better than trained ones, class sizes can be increased without harm to children, and test-based accountability will save all despite the last twenty years of less-than-stellar success. Magicism is most easily recognized by its strong declaratory incantations, frequently delivered by people with limited or no experience in the field. Being short on science, it relies on the brandishing of symbols, rituals, and rites.

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