- 2014 John Dewey Lecture:Does Evidence Matter?
Thank you for inviting me to speak today.
John Dewey and I have had a long and occasionally contentious friendship. He taught me to think critically, and it is a habit I cannot get rid of. For that, I thank him. More than a dozen years ago, I gave a book talk at Teachers College, where I had been a professor for nearly twenty years. When I finished, Arthur Levine, who was then president of TC, got up and said incredulously, “You criticized John Dewey.” And I responded, “John Dewey would have liked that. He taught me that we must keep thinking all the time.”
I consider myself to be a disciple of Dewey’s, even when I disagree with him. Of course, Lawrence Cremin was my mentor at Teachers College, and Larry too taught me that the essence of scholarship is to gather evidence carefully, to document what you write, and to keep thinking. It is in that spirit that I dedicate this lecture to my beloved mentor.
Over the past several years, I gained a certain notoriety for doing something that seems to be unprecedented. I changed my mind. When people ask why I changed my mind, I have two answers: First, I kept thinking. Second, I realized I was wrong. I did not have an overnight epiphany. I realized I was wrong. Period.
And because I came to that realization, I do whatever I can to adhere to Larry’s advice and to try to shed light on how misguided our current education policies are, because they are the very embodiment of what I rejected: standards, testing, accountability, choice, competition.
Taken alone, I am not opposed to any one of those activities. I believe there is a role for standards as aspirational goals, not as mandates and not as a program that standardizes teaching or curriculum or children. A four-minute mile was for many years the standard for which all runners aimed; the record was broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister, and since then, many male runners have crossed that threshold. The fastest run by a female was four minutes and twelve seconds; someday a female athlete will reach the standard. The four-minute mile remains the standard for male middle-distance runners, but it would be madness to expect every runner to run four miles in a minute.
I am not opposed to testing. I think that the best tests are written by teachers, who know what they taught and who can get instant feedback and learn by seeing what their students did and did not understand. [End Page 3]
I am not opposed to accountability, nor to choice, nor to competition.
But taken together, these concepts have become a battering ram that is ruining education, encouraging the privatization of public schools, demoralizing teachers, and undermining the teaching profession as such.
These are strong words, but I think they reflect the parameters of federal education policy today, which in turn influences education policy in every state and school district.
As I reflect on the evolution of federal policy, I recall the purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It was passed specifically to address the needs of disadvantaged children. Its goal was to redistribute resources to the neediest schools and to protect the rights of the neediest students. Every seven years or so, the legislation was reauthorized, and its programs and strategies multiplied, but its central purpose remained the same: Equity.
In 2001, Congress reauthorized the ESEA and gave it a new name and a new purpose. Now it was called the No Child Left Behind law, and its purpose was to prod states and districts to raise test scores, so that no child would be left behind. NCLB changed the focus of federal education policy from seeking equity of resources to seeking equity of test scores. NCLB used the term “evidence-based” more than 100 times in its 1,000-plus pages, so this law is a good place to start to answer the question: “Does evidence matter?”
One can trace the origins of NCLB back to the famous 1983 report...