Risky business

Economics sage Bob Samuelson (my college classmate, if you're interested) wrote last week a characteristically perceptive column, titled "The Economic Catch-22." Observing that "We are now in the ‘blame phase' of the economic cycle," he asked whether people concerned about present-day volatility, bubble bursts, market gyrations, mortgage defaults, margin calls, housing inventories, and such can legitimately assign responsibility to (take your pick) the Chinese, mortgage bankers, Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke, credit-rating agencies, etc.

He concludes that, while these and others doubtless bear some responsibility, overall it's a mistake to search for culprits and scapegoats. "What seems to have happened," Samuelson writes, "was a broad and mistaken reappraisal of risk." Just about everyone suffered from a "false sense of confidence" that the U.S. economy "could overcome just about anything." So people and institutions took risks that they ought not have--"irrational exuberance," for sure. Above all, what happened is that they forgot about the business cycle itself: "The very fact that the economy has done well creates conditions in which it may--at least temporarily--do less well. Prosperity inevitably interrupts itself with losses, popped bubbles and recessions." Those who would minimize such downturns need to be more prudential on the upswing--which likely means there will be less short-term upswing--and more realistic in their appraisal of risks.

Meanwhile, though, people took chances precisely because it looked to them as if, in America's robust economy, "everything works," almost nothing craters, and therefore the risks are actually slim.

What, you ask, does this have to do with education? More than you might think. There's a lot of blame-casting in our world, too, a fair amount of risk taking, most of it exactly the wrong kind, and a lousy track record when it comes to "appraising" risk.

The coin of the education realm is, of course, student performance--test scores, graduation rates, and such. Most of the indicators are flat at best; rather than prolonged "prosperity," k-12 education has been in a long-term recession from which it seems unable to emerge. Like Wall Street, we obsess over every wee bump and dip in the measures we typically follow: SAT scores down a bit, NAEP fourth-grade scores up a bit, AYP schools more or less numerous, graduation-test passing rates a hair better (or worse) than last year's, and on and on. Most of these little wrinkles mean nothing, any more than a hundred-point dip or uptick in the Dow. (My grandfather used to say of the stock market: "It goes up and it goes down.") But they rivet our attention and lead to all manner of writings, symposia, hand-wringings, speechifying, sometimes even election outcomes.

Yet the big education picture is precisely the opposite of the big picture presented by the U.S. economy. In the economy, despite bumps, prosperity improves over time. During boom times, it can seem as if everything works. (Never mind the business failures that still occur.) So try some heretofore unknown credit or debt instrument. Make those loans to sub-par home-buyers. Take that chance. Just about everything appears to have a strong chance of succeeding.

In education, by contrast, the results don't change and nothing much seems to work. In part because of our frustration with that flat terrain and our determination to scale some hillsides, educators and policy folks take a number of risks, too. "If nothing has worked so far, let's try something different." So we launch program after program, intervention after intervention, law after law, expenditure after expenditure, innovation after innovation, generally with little or no evidence that it will change the angle of the performance trend line. But we try them anyway. That's risky behavior, indeed, behavior that likely serves to flatten the line.

It is said, in response--I've said this more than once myself--that we ought to try new things in education precisely because the old things aren't working well enough, and that requiring proof-in-advance that the new things will work is tantamount to maintaining the status quo. I guess that qualifies me as a risk-taker. (I customarily add, however, that we should then evaluate the heck out of the innovations that we try.)

But there are smart risks and there are dumb risks. It's a smart risk to mandate a district-wide reading program when there's evidence that the particular program is effective with kids who need it; it's dumb to mandate one that isn't. It's a smart risk to give people choices among schools but foolish to expect them to make wise choices without ample information. It's a smart risk to allow people to start new schools but it's dumb to throw wide the door and let anyone do anything and call it a school. It's a smart risk to create alternatives to conventional teacher certification--but dumb to suppose that any new teacher will thrive in the classroom without mentoring. It's smart to mandate standards but dumb to let everyone set their own--and expect every single kid to attain them.

My sense is that education reform takes far too many dumb risks and not enough smart ones--and that the reason for this behavior is, at least in part, the failure rather than the success of earlier innovations.

As for blame-casting, we in education could easily drown in it. The kids are to blame for their lack of achievement; poverty is to blame; teachers (and teacher unions) are to blame; bureaucrats; parents; textbooks; drugs; TV; obesity; sleep deprivation; segregation; unequal expenditures; too much reliance on technology; too little technology. I could go on and on in this vein. Indeed, I'm reminded of Senate Finance Committee mark-ups thirty years ago when Chairman Russell Long, the legendary Louisiana lawmaker, would recite his favorite ditty about tax policy: "Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax the fellow under that tree."

Education loves to blame the fellow under the tree, not you and not me.

In sum: our indicators are flat. We blame the other guy. We take dumb risks. We shun--or don't push ourselves to take--smart risks. We do a thoroughly mediocre job of risk appraisal. And this probably contributes to sustained mediocrity of performance.

On reflection, I'd be delighted to swap America's education problems for its economic travails!

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