Using Psychology to Solve Education Woes

Richard Nisbett authored an opinion piece in the New York Times on February 7, discussing what he saw as common sense approaches to improving education. The piece is not without merits, and is worth reading, but also requires a response:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08nisbett.html?scp=2&sq=education&st=cse

While I agreed with some of the discussion of psychological effects on testing data and student performance, there were two main issues about this piece that were particularly bothersome to me.

1) Assessment is not learning. The piece discusses “very small influences” that can have “very large effects.” But the majority of the discussion is about psyching kids up to perform on tests. It’s not about instruction, or improving conditions in schools, or protecting student safety. While you don’t want to psychologically harm students through your instructional practices, there are limits to the degree of achievement that can be achieved through changes of perspective and attitude. I’m not opposed to maximizing the benefits of good psychology, I just don’t believe it’s an adequate replacement for fundamental educational improvements.

So now you psyched up all the kids in America to take the tests, they believe that they will succeed. Now, can you convince students that their class is smaller, so they can benefit from that? Can you talk them into believing that their school is safe and well-maintained when it’s not. Can you convince them that their inequitable access to education resources is fair and just? Undoubtedly, techniques such as this will have a negligibly limited effect, like other attempts at gaming the system in the long run,because in time, all schools tend to implement the measures that work to manipulate test data. Once all students are equally persuaded of their test-taking acumen, we need a new way to bridge the achievement gap.

2) Efficiency. We talk a lot about the efficiency of our education dollars, getting the most bang for our buck. But most social services are not effective when optimized for efficiency that is strictly financial. We are not efficient in many other aspects of Federal and State spending, but when it comes to K-12, hairs are split over the tiniest of details. In higher education, they might have to decide between marble and granite for the facade on fitness center. In K-12, we may have to decide that we can only afford one hour a day of instructional assistants in kindergarten classes of 35.

Any discussion of efficiency in education spending needs to occur AFTER a discussion of adequacy and minimums. I believe in many schools, in many districts, we have never provided adequacy, and any talk of being more efficient is premature.

Let’s talk about efficiency. Let’s end waste. Let’s stop wasting the potential in youth that could be achieved with proper investment, and proper attention. The limited resources allocated to some students in this nation, especially the poor, is wasteful and irresponsible.

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