Is This Working?

(Now that I’ve finished my thesis and defended, I’m ready to return to the interwebs.  I begin again by revisiting a few ideas that first got me interested in the artful science of education.)

A recent installment of This American Life has a topic near and dear to all teachers: student discipline.

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On the surface, this is a delightful radio hour dedicated to the question of student discipline.  Par for the course, the good folks at This American Life have produced a compelling narrative.  But the anecdotes of discipline recalls so many important debates in education (and mimics many in social sciences, generally) that further unpacking is merited.

Some obvious truths: This American Life is a truly superb production that generates excellent reporting (and Ira Glass has a soft spot for schools); student discipline is a key concern for all teachers; discipline is a difficult task that defines the range of academic possibilities (if the kids are poorly behaved, nothing much is possible).

More important than any particular response to discipline challenges, however, is the set of profound questions this podcast asks outright – and hints at, too.  Namely: what should be the goal(s) of education? How would we know if something is working?  What evidence matters?  Should we scale up good ideas, or treat each school as a unique setting?

The first question is key, but laughably too broad for this space.  But the second, third, and fourth questions are important, answerable, and sadly asked very infrequently.  If we’re going to continue the remarkable improvements in schooling, we need to approach these questions – and others – with the kind of systematic rigor of those like Michael Thompson.  Profiled in the podcast, Thompson is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and uses data sets millions large to shed light on, in this case, the “school to prison pipeline,” linking discipline practices of schools to higher incarceration rates.  He brings a scientist’s mind to the question, insisting on high-quality evidence to address complex questions about schooling effectiveness.

We might quibble with a few aspects of this – is Texas representative, for starters – but in general terms this is exactly the kind of inquiry that will lead to better schooling outcomes – and a more just schooling system, too.  We need to stop treating schooling like medicine in the 19th century.  We need to insist on evidence.  (Indeed if our goal is social equity, no greater ally could be found.)

The point is this: the question – how would we know – needs to be asked.  About all educational practices.  Not to be churlish and quarrelsome, but to remind ourselves that, like all ongoing human inquiries, schooling provides provisional truths, subject to verification and falsification.  If not, if we just go with our gut, if we fumble like the well-meaning folks in this radio hour with no systematic methods of inquiry, we have little hope of improving an institution that can lay claim, at least fractionally, to nearly all human success.