Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Death of Theory in Education?

In literary studies, the age of "theory" was coming to its end when I was in college, twenty-some years ago.  I took a class or two in which we read Terry Eagleton's little primer on literary theory and sampled work by a various people who'd been read a lot in the seventies and eighties (Derrida, etc.), but as I recall, my friends and I thought the more theoretical stuff was pretty much a joke. Today I read a piece by an economist making the case that the decline of theory has been a trend in economics, too, and indeed across all the disciplines.  Physicists have hit a theory wall; empirical sciences like biology are ascendant; published economics papers are down from over 50% theoretical in the 60s, 70s and 80s to less than 20% theoretical in 2011; and math is increasingly reliant on proving things by means of brute computing force rather than theoretical deduction.

Why has theory declined?
That last example points to one obvious reason for the shift from a theoretical approach to an empirical approach. Computers allow for data-crunching and simulation-testing that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. But computers are only one possible factor. The economist whose post I read suggests that the waning of theory might be due not only to competition from the now-stronger alternative of empiricism, but because theory itself has been played out (he expresses it in econ terms: "Maybe we've temporarily exhausted the surplus gains available from ramping up our investment in theory.")

As I see it, computing is certainly a huge part of the decline of theory, and the endogenous "exhaustion" of theory itself may be another. I wonder if another factor could be the fall of the Soviet Union. For over a hundred years before the time I was in college, the world had a very vigorous non-stop debate over how to see the world. Then, with the rise of the USSR, competition between the two hegemonic political systems fueled theoretical debates even in fields very far removed from politics (literary studies, for one). When I was in college, the global political competition abruptly ended, and the theoretical debates started to taper off as well. The decline was particularly steep in economics, but it happened in lots of other fields, too.

Connection to Education?
Is this related to education?  I think so.  It's certainly true that theory is less important in education than it used to be. This is true in the literature, but we can see it all around us. When I taught in Harlem in the mid-nineties, the headmaster of my school was an old poet who talked about Paulo Freire all the time. By the time I left, a few years later, he'd been forced out by his board and been replaced by a young corporate executive. Twenty-five years ago, Peter McClaren came out with Life in Schools, my copy of which cites the author's "cutting-edge theoretical work"; last year, when I first read something McClaren had written, my first instinct was to make fun, not only of his rock-star style choices, but also of his Marxism.

So the decline of theory in education does seem related to the triumph of capitalism. Recently I've been thinking about how education is both a public good and a private good. Over the past twenty-five years, the standard view of education has moved away from seeing it as a public good and has come to see it more and more in individualistic terms. There has also, of course, been a push for a more "free-market" system in education.  Both of these shifts, I think, would have been very different if the USSR were still around--not because the USSR was doing education in particular so differently, nor because Diane Ravitch or whoever would be at all sympathetic to the communist system, but because theoretical debate in general would be so much more vigorous. As it is now, we find it difficult to believe in theory at all anymore.  I remember reading Flatland in high school and being really struck by the idea that in a two-dimensional world you just can't imagine a third dimension.

What will happen? 
We will eventually rebuild our theoretical discourses. But it might take a while. In the meantime, while we are stuck with capitalism and with appeals to "evidence-based" approaches, we need to be wary of going with the flow.

What should we do?
I like liberation theology's idea that we should have a "preferential option for the poor"; in the current era, maybe we should have a preferential option for theory and against the rich and powerful. That is, maybe we should:

  1. Look very critically at the evidence, and remember (recalling the Foucault we read lo those many years ago) that when we claim our approach is based on evidence it is probably based on assumptions that have nothing to do with evidence, and 
  2. Look very critically at anything that is supported by rich people or would serve to benefit rich people.
Other ideas?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ETS calls for Graduate Schools of Educational Public Health and more attention to poverty

ETS (!) has sponsored an excellent report on poverty and education.  Written by Richard Coley of ETS and Bruce Baker of Rutgers (and schoolfinance101), the report says what should be obvious to any observer and what many other excellent reports have said over the past forty years: that poverty is a problem for education, but education alone is not a solution to poverty.  Most of the report does the noble work of making (again) a detailed case that there is way too much poverty in the US, that we don't do enough about it, and that this poverty has serious negative educational consequences. The whole report is worthy, but I noticed a couple of things in particular:

A call for a focus on educational public health
The report's executive summary contains a wonderful sentence expressing a sentiment I wish we saw more often:

Given the strong connection between educational success and economic disadvantage, we might
expect education policy to focus on ways to overcome the effects of poverty on children.

In other words, they want schools of Educational Public Health!

What to do
Despite the report's clear implication that fixing poverty would be a good way to improve educational outcomes, the authors unfortunately choose, apparently from modesty, not to recommend any non-educational measures: "There are other strategies that fall outside of the education arena — tax policy, job creation, minimum wage policy, etc. — that also are outside of the purview of this report." The report does, however, make seven specific suggestions for actions within the "education arena", all of which ought to be common sense:

Increasing awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences. Child poverty costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Current poverty levels, combined with the growingwealth gap between those at the top and bottom of the distribution, threaten to destabilize our democracy and limit the upward mobility of children of future generations.
Equitably and adequately funding our schools. The economic downturn has taken a toll on state school funding and on targeted programs like preschool that can help disadvantaged children. There is a need for better coordination of federal and state education programs targeted at poverty.
Broadening access to high-quality preschool education. High-quality early childhood education programs improve the educational outcomes of all children, but particularly for low-income children. The administration’s proposed major expansion of preschool programs across the country should be supported.
Reducing segregation and isolation. Many of the nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by race/ethnicity and income. Each student should have the opportunity to attend schools with peers from diverse social and economic backgrounds.
Adopting effective school practices. School policies that have been documented by research and practice to be effective should be broadly adopted. Examples include class size reduction, longer school days and years, and tutoring.
Recognizing the importance of a high-quality teacher workforce. Attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms should be of the utmost priority and may require special incentives. 
Improving the measurement of poverty. The poverty rate is an important social and economic indicator that is used to allocate resources for scores of federal, state, and local programs. Work should continue to expand the official definition of income to include government spending directed at low-income families and to recognize cost-of-living differences across regions.

These aren't new ideas, but as the poet says, it is necessary to write about the same old things
in the same way, repeating the same things over and over. And who knows, maybe this report will get a lot of attention, and we'll stop spending so much time designing ways for schools to compete for the richer students (in Hirschman's terms, we need a system where change is based on voice, not exit).  And, yes, we need a lot less poverty.