Cynicism About Education Reform

A Finnish computer game developed, Rovio Entertainment, came up with one of the most downloaded applications on almost any type of system, the Angry Birds:

A wingless bird is launched with a slingshot with the object of destroying pigs and their structures. At first glance, the game looks like an application of projectile motion:
My son loves playing this game on almost any platform, IPad, Kindle, laptop. Of course, with all the hours he has played the game, he probably has no clue regarding the vectors shown above. Two years ago, Mattel introduced a toy that brought Angry Birds into something a child could actually hold and touch:

When my son got hold of one of these toys, he found out that it was quite different from the game on a touchscreen. It took him quite awhile to calibrate before he started hitting the pigs. Concepts in physics can indeed be embedded in games but I am not inclined to recommend using "Angry Birds" to teach projectile motion.

When I first visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago about 25 years ago, there was an exhibit that allowed someone to perform an acid-base titration. The simulation was quite interesting. Like "Angry Birds", how it works is really not shown. In simulations, exhibits and games, the only person who really has demonstrated mastery is the one who wrote the software, or the one who designed and constructed the exhibit.

The search for innovations in teaching and learning as well as for reforms in educational systems has been underway for so many decades now. When there is a clear need to address problems in basic education, the word "reform" becomes almost synonymous to something that is good. Critics of reforms proposed and pursued are sometimes labeled as opponents of change. Sometimes, critics are even painted as having an agenda of their own. Very recently, the Los Angeles Times reported the story, "L.A. Unified's college-prep push is based on false data". To this, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones replies with quite a cynical article,
"Big Surprise: Yet Another Ed Reform Turns Out to be Bogus". The college-prep of the San Jose district of California started 12 years ago with the objective of imposing higher standards in high school so that students would be more prepared for college. Through the years, the district was reporting promising results. This week, those numbers turned out to be wrong. The final score:
In 2000, before the college-prep program took effect, 40% of San Jose graduates fulfilled requirements for applying to University of California and Cal State University. In 2011, the number was 40.3%.
The numbers above are really disappointing and Kevin Drum offers the following advice (
My cynicism about the ed reform community grows by leaps and bounds every time I read a story like this. And that's pretty often. Here's my advice for what you should do whenever you read an article about a school that's shown miraculous results by applying some reform or another (or by hiring a miracle worker of some stripe or another):
  1. Don't believe it if it's based on a single school or other small sample.
  2. Don't believe it if most of the evidence comes from the school itself.
  3. Don't believe it if the reform in question was put in place only a few years ago.
  4. Don't believe it if it hasn't been replicated elsewhere.
  5. Don't believe it unless it's been rigorously tested by academics who didn't already support the idea in the first place.
  6. And even if it passes all those tests, don't believe it anyway.
The number of ed reforms that hold up when the evidence is looked at critically seems to be tiny. The number that continue to work when they're scaled up seems to be tiny. The number that continue to show results all the way through high school seems to be tiny. The number that can withstand critical scrutiny seems to be tiny. And of the ones that are left, the cost to keep them up usually appears to be prohibitive.