To President George Bush
Re: the new Institute for Educational Sciences
We are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, the United States leads the world on nearly every dimension of scientific and technological achievement, in both the biomedical and the physical sciences. At the same time, we have a precollegiate educational system that is mediocre at best. It is natural to ask whether we can use our scientific strength to improve American education. And, indeed, that is the purpose of the recently created Institute for Educational Sciences. This Institute promises to improve the quality of educational research by embracing models from biomedicine. Indeed it singles out "randomized trials" as the "gold standard" for educational research.
By all means, we should ask science to do what it capable to do, but not what it cannot do. (I am sure that, wearing your religious hat, you would agree with that statement. No one is calling for randomized trials in the church, synagogue, or mosque). Education differs from medicine in three crucial respects and these need to be understood and respected.
First of all, education is an endeavor that is laden with human values. While almost no one disputes the medical goals of longer and healthier lives, we in a democracy differ deeply about the kind of education that we value. How could we ever design a single educational system that would please Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura? We cannot conduct meaningful scientific research on educational practices unless we articulate a value system with some specificity. And so, to be concrete, we can’t just compare three scientific methods in terms of efficacy. We need to decide whether we want a science education that focuses on factual knowledge, laboratory skills, deep understanding of a few essential concepts, asking good questions, or some amalgam thereof. Only thereafter can proper studies be launched.
Second, young persons are not seeds of corn, nor are they informed adults who can give consent to their involvement in an experiment. It may be appropriate to have randomized trials for certain questions (e.g. what are the benefits and losses of beginning secondary school one hour later each day) but it is not appropriate to institute them for other issues (e.g. teaching a class without any opportunity for student questions, only to determine what the costs and benefits are of such an approach). Certainly, as a parent, I would not give consent for my child to be a guinea pig in order to demonstrate the merits or liabilities of some educationalist’s pet theory.
Third, teaching is and will always be in part an art or craft, and properly so. Teaching depends upon human interactions over long periods of time and on the transmission of wisdom as well as the gradual elimination of pernicious practices. The educational systems that we admire all over the world are not ones that are based on scientific research; they are the ones where skilled practitioners have cultivated wise procedures over the generations and passed them on to their successors carefully though not uncritically. Attempts to create teacher-proof environments are destined to fail. We need to honor the craft of teaching, and not try to eliminate it by scientific (which are often pseudo-scientific) manipulations.
So two cheers for the New Institute, Mr. President, but remember above all: You went to Andover, Yale and Harvard, respected educational institutions where educational values are debated up front, where you were not a guinea pig in randomized trials, and where you had some of the most gifted teachers in the world. Your children, our children, deserve the same respect.
Professor of Education at Harvard University
Author of Frames of Mind, The Mind's New Science, and Extraordinary Minds.