Stop Doing Experiments in Education Because Some do Not Work

Scientists should quite doing experiments because some do not work. At least that is the argument being made by some about charter schools. Some of them are bad, so we should get rid of charter schools. Historically, I do not see this same viewpoint applied to traditional schools, which suggests to me that there is more to this line of thinking. If I were talking to a critic of charter schools (and I sort of am since I am both an advocate and critic of charter schools), the critic might point out that charter schools do not have the same accountability as other schools, and that is true in many situations.

That is why it would seem to me that the argument should not be to close charter schools but to hold them accountable. That is where the majority of people end up when we have this conversation. When we start an experiment, we learn something. Based upon that, we change things and try the experiment again. We do this in iterations, improving or refining the outcome a bit more each time. It seems to me that this is how we should approach all schools.

The opposite is to defend a certain type of school because we like it or prefer it. Then we come up with measures to show that it is superior, demanding that other schools be judged by the same measures. The only problem is that those measures are not necessarily what matter most to many people.

An original purpose of charter schools was to have them serve as incubators of innovation, free from some of the policies and practices enough to try something new, monitor the results, and learn from them. If something is promising enough, then we can apply that idea to other schools as well.

We are seeing that happen. Project-based learning did not gain traction until full project-based learning charter schools started demonstrating the possibilities. We can say this for many other engaging approaches to teaching and learning. There are pockets of magnet schools and independent schools that helped demonstrate promising practices, but charters schools have been a huge means of helping to broaden our sense of what is possible. Montessori charter schools expanded awareness. Project-based learning schools helped people see the benefits and limitations of this method. The same is true for charter schools focused upon classical education, core knowledge, experiential education, inquiry-based learning, game-based learning and more.

In fact, many of these have taken off so much that leading voices in many of these areas are not longer connected with charter schools. They are in independent schools and traditional public community schools. The excitement and interest is growing and spreading.

I do not mean to claim that charter schools are the instigator of all of these innovations. There are associations, grassroots groups, education startups, and connected teachers in traditional schools who have paved the way for new ideas. This is especially true when it comes to one-to-one programs, blended learning, some game-based learning practices, maker spaces, the genius hour, and more. There is a spirit of innovation and experimentation at work in many schools.

This is all promising, but I also find myself taking an unusual position, namely I am often joining the voice of the charter school critics, not the few extremists who want to shut down the entire model, but those who call for accountability and evidence. I would add to that good, old-fashioned and candid critiques of these practices. My matra is “affordances and limitations”, and I continue to call for more of that line of thinking when it comes to any and all approaches to teaching and learning. We must come to a place where, like scientists with experiments, we strive to bracket our agendas and biases, and ask the tough questions about what we are doing, what is working, and what is not.

Not all biases can be set aside because we differ on the purpose of education, core beliefs about people and learning, and what sort of goals or outcomes we should have in education (if any). Yet, even with those differences, we can analyze the benefits and limitations. What one person calls a limitation, another will call a benefit. That is okay. Just keep unpacking these items and trust the people around to make sense of what we share. We can lobby for what we believe and value, but it is still important to ultimately leave room for people to make different decisions based upon what we find.

In the case of charters and innovations in non-charter schools, the fact is that some things are working, and some things are not. I keep saying that we need to expand what we measure if we are going to make progress. I find too many critics of charters, for example lamenting the test-driven focus in modern education, and then they turn around and critique charter schools almost solely on the basis of their test scores. That is a double standard that we has to go. Test scores as we are using them today do not tell many of us what we want to know. We need to do the hard work of studying more and diverse factors.

Put any group of teachers, parents, and school leaders in a room. Have them come up with a a list of things that they think are most important for young people to thrive after school. Then we can go back and start coming up with authentic ways to measure those things, because I can guarantee you that it goes well beyond performance on language arts and math tests.

When I use the word “experiment,” people are right to respond with a warning that we should not treat our students as experiments. They are too valuable. That is a point well-taken, and there is much from that position that can inform how we go about our efforts. However, there is a limitation to that critique. Parenting is an experiment as well. We are all learning as we go. We tend to agree that some things are important, but there is ample room for difference and experimentation also. We can say the same thing about many aspects of life, and school is one of them. That is why we continue to experiment, but we create carefully considered parameters to protect ourselves and others. We are in constant review. We are not just waiting for quarterly assessments. We are constantly monitoring what is working and not working, and we are adjusting. We are learning from and applying the best knowledge available to us.

Getting rid of our experiments in education is not the solution. Neither is politicizing the findings from these experiments.