A little off topic but I want to rebut the idea that the finish line for educational research and reform should be getting everyone into college and an "elite" career. That is economically illiterate. A healthy economy has a wide diversity of work and not all of those jobs are going to be in the field of computer programming. Blue collar labor is just as necessary to a well-functioning society as white collar labor. It is no failure if somebody doesn't want to go to college--that is a simple and basic diversity that society as a whole should understand and embrace.

What is remarkable to me is the belief that only white collar work should pay well and the blue collar work should naturally pay poverty wages. Why does this paradigm go largely unquestioned/unchallenged? It's factually wrong for the skilled trades and the worship of concepts like "creativity" and "innovation" has become practically fetishized.

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Jun 1, 2021Liked by Freddie deBoer

Really great post. “Hard science” folks like your friend will always be skeptical of social science, and a lot of that skepticism is deserved – but these are important questions, and there’s no good alternative, especially because we’re largely talking about quantitative outcomes (GPA, test scores, class rank, college admissions and performance, job salary, etc.) Ethnography can suggest hypotheses, but it can’t tell us what works at scale.

I encountered a lot of the same prejudices against statistics in grad school, mostly from people who specialized in inequality (race, gender, and LGBTQ studies). They would convince themselves it was a hate crime to even categorize people for quantitative analysis. For example, a checkbox for race/ethnicity = oppression because it reduces complex personal identities to a few categories. I would often point out that we wouldn’t even be able to talk about inequality without categories and numbers.

For me, one of the most feasible reforms is increased & improved use of randomization. We need greater tolerance for the inherent unfairness of randomizing interventions in the short term so that we can help everyone in the long term.

Another feasible one is publishing null findings--because this can be accomplished without billionaires. The discipline could come together to support a real journal for null results, or (even better) prestigious journals could dedicate a certain % of each issue to null results. A small group of big names could make this happen if they really wanted to. But they’re probably afraid of younger scholars publishing papers that disprove their pet theories.

Finally, more funding for schools to conduct their own quantitative research (in collaboration with professional researchers). Schools have access to their own student data, the ability to conduct new surveys / assessments, and the desire to find out what actually works in reality. I haven’t looked at the research closely enough to speak to the quality, but the concept behind the U Chicago Education Lab (partnering researchers with school districts) seems promising – at least, it’s better than school districts implementing expensive interventions without a plan to study the results that accounts for the many threats to internal validity.

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Freddie, I understand why you do it, but i wish you would make a distinction between education and schooling. What you are talking about is schooling, not education. What all the papers are about, and all the supposed innovations, is schooling and its structure. The belief is that schooling will result in education. Generally, it does not. It can result in learning but even then it sometimes, for some people, does not. (BTW, I am totally on board with your perspectives on schooling and your subtle parsing I think valuable and excellent.) I have, for a very long time, believed that the one thing that is not examined is the rationale for the existence of schooling and its particular structure that is in place. And i think that it is the rationale that is problematical.

I may be wrong in this but from my reading which has been extensive but not as extensive as yours it seems to me that two points about schooling are foundational to its current form. 1) It was oriented around Austrian forms of the nineteenth century; 2) The primary function of mandatory schooling was the integration of the huge influx of immigrants coming into the US in the early 20th century into US culture. The main focus seemed to be on: a) learning english so that all of us had a common language and b) the inculcation of the american myth in immigrants so that all of us would have a common bond which would reduce the tendency for subgroup conflicts. As regards the latter rationale: the assaults of the right and left on the american myth is destroying it as an umbrella under which we all can live and find similarities between us. People forget that we are one of the few "created" nations that exist. Others have histories that go back a very long way. To be French is one thing, To be American is another thing entirely. We have the founders and bill of rights and the constitution, they have France. Radical leftists don't seem to care or realize that if the myth is destroyed the country has no rationale for existence and can subsequently devolve into a confederacy of independent nation states. Not something that will be good for us given the world situation. The right is willing to destroy existing structures in order to get and keep power; they don't care what or who it hurts or destroys in the process. In any event, i think the teaching of our common myth (in which i happen to strongly believe) is important. I also think a common language (not to the exclusion of others) is important as well. The rest of it, up for discussion simply because most people are not interested in being educated. They just want to get on with things. Which is why i don't think that schooling beyond age 14-16 is an important alteration of our current mindset. (If a 13 year old can be treated as an adult when they commit a crime, then 13 is the age of adulthood, not 18. It is hypocrisy to have it both ways.) Children come to realize around the age of puberty that they are not in school for their own good, they are there so their parents can work in the corporate world; it is child care and a social attempt to keep teenagers under control when their hormones kick in. There is a reason that 14 was considered the age of adulthood for much of human history (sometimes even earlier).

I wish that the trades were a viable, socially respected alternative and maybe one of these days it will be again. The infrastructure of america will always need to be maintained, which it is not these days. And there are a lot of people who like to work with their hands (me among them, though i also am fully invested in a variety of demanding intellectual fields as well). Such a calling should not be denigrated. As Hillary made all too clear, disrespect of the "deplorables" has a bad outcome. And I think that most people find the majority of politicians far more deplorable, and truly so and the managerial, meritocratic elite are joining them at a pretty fast rate.

You are entirely correct about your point that it makes no sense to try and school every person in america through age 18, the current system does not work for a lot of people. This is why i think the entire system needs to be rethought. What IF children did not have to go to school so their parents could both work? This situation serves the corporations, not the people. It would necessitate a complete restructuring of the corporate/social structure complex which i think is essential anyway. Most people I think agree with that. In any event, the caffeine just hit, sorry, it just stimulates one word after another. I do agree with nearly everything you post on this issue, i appreciate your doing so. My main quibble is that i think the entire system dysfunctional and believe it is time to tear the whole thing apart and create something completely different. (which i know is not going to happen until it collapses of its own weight.)

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New subscriber--really enjoy reading your substack so far—especially the education articles.

A lot to unpack here---I have been teaching in NYC public schools for almost fifteen years (small sample size, two schools ms/hs level). As to my ‘lived experience’ ---most of the little research I was exposed to has either been on the benefits of cooperative learnin , various diversity/equity (or culturally responsive as it used to be called---the same drivel I had to read in grad school—only more out in the open now) initiatives, or recently there was a little growth mindset sprinkled in -- the latter very short lived. I always got the feeling it was very top down and whatever the principals/assistant principals were getting told to read/implement by the district or central office. Most of this ‘research’ was exactly as you describe in this post—in some cases with cooperative learning, it was striking how little research they even exposed the faculty to but was such an absolute necessity come evaluation time. Not surprising, most of the ed-research gets trickled down, rolled out for a year or two, and then never brought back again or brought back with a new name.

I think the essential issue (see tell the truth) is that no matter what research based approach you utilize, in your average public school in the largest districts, teachers spend an overwhelming amount of time on the 2-3 students that disrupt the learning environment, and make it difficult for the other 90% of the class. This leads to most teacher outreach focusing on them, ‘professional development’ focusing on those 2-3 kids, and most of the ed-research focusing on them as well. Look at the overwhelming amount of research about impact of suspensions on students and the very little research done on impact of suspension on the class. Or just look at the NYC Mayoral race ridiculous focus on the specialized high schools at the expense of 95% of the rest of the schools in the city. Someone mentioned the phonics issue in another post---while I have no hard evidence for elementary school—my guess is that it’s very difficult to teach third graders a very structured lesson on phonics with the aforementioned 2-3 students in the room.

In NYC, I would bet that it’s 5% of the student body that has a substantial negative impact on the learning outcomes of 75% or more of the rest (baring the few remaining screened middle/hs’s). If you could identify these students early, track them into vocational options, get some therapy dogs, school psychologists (all in the same place!) bring in some local businesses etc. etc.—you could incorporate a variety of research based approaches and get some real quality data and see what works and what doesn't work. If you did do this, it would just lead to more uncomfortable truths about what those demographics would be…but crickets on the other 75% who happen to be those same demographics. Let’s continue to pretend that getting those 5% of students to see themselves in the curriculum will be the magic bullet---or just yell more about equity.

Are people willing to accept conclusions that cut against their social and political desires, especially the bipartisan commitment to pretending that there’s some magic bullet that will someday solve our education problems? I do not see it, and only see it getting worse.

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I'm an infectious disease doc who's done research on and off for the last 7 years. Initially, I did bench research studying genes of antibiotic resistance, and then later ventured into more "qualitative" realms, looking at public perceptions of science, specifically around vaccines. This shift came as I grew antsy in the lab, but especially as I developed a wider interest in philosophy and the world of ideas. Since that shift, I've had at least 500 internal versions of that conversation you had with your friend, where I've thought that I could have a lot better go at things (and a lot more influence) as a muck-raking reporter, a special interest writer, or even a hyper-online twitter personality (with a LOT less hassle from the folks at the IRB).

I don't think it's controversial to say that the science I used to do is something entirely different from the science I do now, where the basic endpoints are human behavior, in all its messy and subjective glory. Many of the reasons the social sciences are different from the natural ones are things you listed: the complexity of baseline variables, the agony of interpreting endpoints as ephemeral as "beliefs," and the increased propensity (and capacity) to simply juice the data to prove either your own pre-existing theories or the hot theories of the day. (You can only imagine the ways that external drivers have affected the field of vaccine hesitancy research over the last year or so...)

The other problem of the social sciences is the inherent paradox of studying human behavior at all while also allowing for some concept of freedom. Part of this goes back to Aristotle and the problem of future contingents: Even if all your best scientific models say that there's going to be a sea battle tomorrow, the fact that a sea battle occurs doesn't necessarily PROVE the truth of your models, because ultimately the battle's coming-to-be depends on an element of human freedom, right up until the minute it occurs. Other problems arise from all that Foucault that people are always rehashing: The more we try to pre-empt and account for peoples' behaviors (behavior that simply hasn’t happened yet), the more we suck those people into an ever-expanding sphere of potentialities, where everyone is just a bundle of risk factors that need to be monitored, interrogated, and retrained if necessary. Yes, humans are material beings, influenced by material needs and material conditions; but we're also influenced by art, by faith, by love, by hubris. To return to Aristotelian terms, we are beings beholden to both Efficient and Final causes. Even if you're willing to recognize that both kinds of causes are always at play in, it can be a real pain in the ass to try and figure out how they actually interact.

Despite all these misgivings, on most days I generally share a feeling akin to yours: that we must, somehow, be able to assert more certainty from less. Much of this eternally-recurring faith is in the project of Empiricism: that every theory, to be considered true, must be continually tested against reality, and discarded if necessary. While this is obviously a lot easier in the natural sciences, the only way to make the social sciences worth anything is to apply the very same spirit to one’s practice. Much of this spirit is centered in that epistemic humility you mentioned, which- yes- is a lot easier in theory than in practice, but is also exactly what a decent grounding in the sciences is supposed to inculcate. The spirit of, “I might be wrong,” is the most fundamental basis of any scientific practice, though sadly it’s exactly what the left seems to be letting go of with the slow de-prioritization of free speech protections.

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In physics, there is substantial evidence-based educational research. The biggest name in the field is Carl Wieman, a Nobel Laureate for his experimental work on Bose-Einstein condensates: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wieman

have never dug into the data myself, but I have heard Wieman speak, and he is very persuasive that peer instruction works much better than traditional lecturing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_instruction This methodology is now widely used in lower-division college physics classes.

Has this had any impact on broader education research? (As far as I can tell, no.)

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So complex. I have a simple truth: 50% of people are below average. Education, learning, practical application, why do some people succeed where others fail? Thank you for your effort to figure it out.

For me the question becomes how we treat people who can’t get there. Currently we leave them in abject misery. Half of people will fail in a knowledge based economy. How are we going to treat them? Saying that half of people will fail cuts against politeness and politics.

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José Saramago trained as a mechanic. Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

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Doesn’t it all belong to the economists anyway? Has education research done by educators in schools of education had a meaningful impact on education policy in recent years? I feel like everything that’s happened since at least NCLB has been under the direction and guidance of economists. Emily Oster has done so well with the pandemic and getting pregnant women to drink (just a little bit!) that I nominate her to empirically study all scholastic decisions, large and small.

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There are so many variables in education, particularly in our very heterogeneous country, I really don't know how we come up with sweeping theories. And yet we always want to. I am reminded of the reign of Whole Language, a time when teachers lived in fear of administrators catching them teach phonics or grammar. How did this ignite? Was it sparked by quantitative or qualitative research? Then we flipped, and became very skills oriented again. I wonder how it is now? Quantitative and qualitative both have value, taken with a grain of salt, because again, it's hard to apply something to everything. I'm surprised that quantitative is so disdained. How can one do research while excluding the quantitative?

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Not an academic but regarding "publishing null results," it seems like that requires some kind of vetting from a journal before the study is done? That is, someone needs to say in advance that a particular study is worth doing even if the results are null, because that would be interesting. (Otherwise you can do some bullshit study, get null results, and that's not interesting.)

This is sort of what funders do when they decide which studies to fund. I guess the idea would be for them to coordinate somehow? If you get approval to go ahead, you get funding and you get to publish the results.

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