From the Principal's Office: 5 Ways to Be a Skeptic in Today's "Reformy" Educational World

“Good skeptics change their minds, according to the best evidence available. There is just one thing to be loyal to here, reality.” Guy Harrison, Think: Why You Should Question Everything

In a time of education reform peddling and of vendors selling wares claiming that this program increases student achievement and that this program will improve graduation rates, what serves an educational leader well is to be a strong skeptic. As Guy Harrison says in his book, our loyalties should lie with reality. It should not lie with friends who have left education and are now selling some latest educational ware. Our loyalties do not lie with unquestioningly listening to latest edict that comes down from the federal government as the answer to all of our school’s educational shortcomings. Our loyalty does not lie in unquestioningly implementing unfounded programs and practices. Our loyalty should lie with demanding that all of the above be demonstrated with scientific proof and reason that what they claim is true.

In his book, Think: Why You Should Question Everything, Guy Harrison offers a useful framework for being a skeptic when it comes to those making outrageous claims about anything. As the late Carl Sagan once wrote, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and any educational resource salesperson or educator pushing a pet program, saying definitively that their product or practice raises test scores, needs to provide evidence to that fact, and testimonial quotes from another school district leader or teacher is not sufficient.

Harrison offers all of us a thinking approach to question those who approach us with these kinds of claims. He encourages us to utilize the scientific process when we “bump up against weird things in everyday life,” and I must say that in my 24 years in education, I've seen some pretty weird and outrageous educational claims.

Here’s Harrison’s steps to exercising skepticism toward extraordinary claims and my own suggestions for how it would apply in a school leadership role.

  • Ask questions. According to Harrison, asking questions is critical. We should not passively accept what we are told by policymakers, politicians and even educational researchers making claims. Educators are notorious for sometimes being sheep and avoiding asking the tough questions. As Tienken and Orlich state in their book, The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myths and Lies, "Education professionals have a history of not asking why." Being educated, you would think educators would explode with questions in the face of educational claims, but too often they fall prey to arguments of authority or because someone has 90 years experience as an educator, as if that's somehow a substitute for real proof. Sometimes the right question, according to Harrison can derail the most invalid claim. Being an educator-skeptic doesn't mean you are being disrespectful. It means you are being loyal to reality and not to an idea, policymaker, boss, or friend.
  • Observe. This is something educators sometimes don’t do well either. We need to do as Harrison suggests and “look and listen with deliberate effort.” When some policy or educational practice is implemented, and even before, we should observe it for how it works and how it affects others. Our job as educators should never be guardians of the latest educational fad or program. The burden of proof isn't on us; it's on those who push the practice. We shouldn't be marshaling evidence to defend someone else's practice. We should be willing to simply look at the evidence and decide for ourselves whether it is working as it should. And, as advocates for children, we should be willing to speak up when practices harm children and learning or are a waste of resources.
  • Research. Harrison reminds us that “If you look for it, it’s not difficult to find credible information about most claims.” We should do our own “fact-checking.” As educators most of us have experience with research and how its conducted, so you would think we would demand that information we receive about a product or practice have the best scientific support and rationale. Take the claims about using value-added measures in teacher evaluations and how it can increase student achievement. There’s no research to support that claim no matter where you look. Intuitively it makes sense, but those who advocate for its use in teacher evaluations don’t have an ounce of support for the practice, yet we've implemented it across our entire state as well as others. Educators owe their students and themselves to conduct research about claims made from outside education and from above and within.
  • Experiment. So many things we do in education are obviously not subject to scientific experimentation, after all, try telling parents at your school that you’re experimenting with their kids and see how far that gets you. It’s just not ethical sometimes to perform blind studies on our students. But, that does not mean that we can’t look at the research and see if someone has examined a practice or reviewed its effectiveness to see if there is any basis in the claim. We only need to look at the effects of policy on our kids and teachers to see how it is working. We can also engage in our own case studies and collect information from those who experience the program or practice. That is data too, and perhaps the best data because it tells us how a policy and practice is affecting our students and staff locally. We should constantly study how policy and practice affects what we do.
  • Share ideas and conclusions with others. As Harrison points out, this is a “great way to get feedback from people who may know more that we do about a claim.” We aren't trying to debunk or discredit. We should be trying to get at the truth. We should share how policy, practices, and products actually are working in our schools.

As Harrison points out, “Smart and honest people are sincerely wrong all the time.” The person pushing the latest education reform initiative or a new instructional approach certainly may be sincere and honest. Their intentions may be saintly; they want to do what’s best for kids. But that does not mean we give them a pass due to their saintly intentions. In the end, the obligation for proof should ideally fall in the laps of the sellers: those pushing new educational products, new policy, and new practices. But, when such proof or support will not stand up under the scrutiny of questions, observation, research, experimentation, our obligation is still with reality and our students.

Harrison definitely makes clear what can happen to unsubstantiated claims when he states, “Only hollow beliefs tremble when confronted by reason, and only false claims collapse when skeptical thinking is applied.” In an age when new reforms and approaches are being flung in our direction at light speed, skepticism should definitely be in our leadership toolbox. We owe to ourselves and our students to subject all claims to reason and thinking.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.