Smart people doing dumb things — education edition

Here’s a smart look at how smart people do really dumb things when it comes to school reform. It  was written by Larry Cuban, a former superintendent of Arlington Public Schools for seven years, a former high school social studies teacher for 14 years and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. This was first published on his blog about school reform and classroom practice.

By Larry Cuban

Why do smart people do dumb things? Examples are legion. Recall President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus resigning over an extra-marital affair. Or shrewd investors in Bernard Madoff’s company losing their financial shirts.

Switch to education and consider El Paso (TX) Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who went to jail for inflating student test scores and giving a no-bid contract to his mistress.

OK, Larry, you made your point. People with smarts, power, and position caved in to their impulses. They did dumb things.

Actually, I want to go beyond that self-evident point made elsewhere and say that very smart educational policymakers also engage in folly not involving sex or money. Two stories make that point.

The first happened in New York City public schools in the early 1980s over abolishing “social promotion.” For many years, reformers had criticized educators for moving students to the next grade when they lacked the requisite knowledge and skills. The then Chancellor instituted a “Promotional Gates Program” in elementary and middle school grades with high-stakes tests in reading and math. If students didn’t pass they would have to repeat the grade. After a few years, so many students failed the test and were retained in grade that they eventually dropped out of school. When data confirmed that outcome, the Promotional Gates program disappeared.

Then a decade later, another chancellor attacked “social promotion” by holding back 35,000 students, requiring them to take special summer classes to advance to the next grade. Of that number, nearly 25,000 had failed the annual tests but almost a fifth of those failures occurred because of mistakes made by district officials. The chancellor at that time quickly ended the program. But in 2000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein railed again at “social promotion” and, yes, you guessed it — another version of the “promotional gates” was resurrected.  Putting an untested policy into action the first time might be chalked up to error. And then putting those same ideas into practice a second time is dumb. But a third time? Well, That’s plain stupid.

Now consider the story of an elite university sliding into dumbness.

In the late 1960s,, Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multimillion dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).

The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and two large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play.  Students punched in their choices to communicate answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

In 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. When I came to hear a professor lecture, yes, you guessed it, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, however, a long awaited renovation occurred and the responders were gone. Finally.

In the past two years, however, Stanford faculty and administration have been swept up in offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The pervasive belief among many faculty including top University administrators is that MOOCs will “revolutionize” U.S. higher education teaching, learning, and college course offerings.  The belief in the power of disruptive technologies such as MOOCs to upend an institution is deep and abiding.

Perhaps there is another reason smart people do dumb things beyond succumbing to sex and power. They are too smart, they are too facile in devising clever responses to turn away arguments, logic, and evidence that challenge their beliefs and policies. They then end up doing foolish and even stupid things.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 24, 2012