If Education Advocacy Were More Like Pharmaceutical Ads

Photo of woman holding tablet reading Side Effects

In recent months, I’ve found myself cast as the designated skeptic in print and on panels dealing with topics from civic education to personalized learning to social and emotional learning. I’ve become a congenital contrarian, and a bit of a broken record, forever repeating, “Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” in response to advocates arguing for various reform strategies and tactics.

Don’t mistake me. Like most folks, I have preferred flavors of schooling and favorite reform levers that I’ll argue for, sometimes strenuously. But the list of practices and strategies that I’d make mandatory, were I czar, is extremely limited. (In fact, I can’t think of any beyond scientifically-sound reading instruction including a content-rich core curriculum.) Part of that reluctance is the inevitably mediocre results when practices and policies are imposed from above as opposed to embraced with on-the-ground enthusiasm and implemented with fidelity. But the greater part is our tendency to downplay, disregard, or outright deny that virtually everything we do in schools requires trade-offs and has potential side effects, some of which may be less than pleasing.

As Dylan Wiliam has long noted, “Everything works somewhere. Nothing works everywhere.” The right question, he says, is not so much “What works?” but “Under what conditions will this work?” To that sage observation I’d suggest adding a second question: What are the side effects? Things might look very different—we might even manage to sustain promising practices and reform initiatives long enough for them to bear fruit—if advocates were required to temper their pitches with warning labels, akin to pharmaceutical ads and those tiny-font fold-outs that come with your meds. Make your case. Sell yourself as hard as you want to the consumer—but then comes the legally required disclaimers and warnings about potentially harmful side effects. Here are some proposed TV ads for few recent much-touted reform pitches, with my joy-killing sketch of some possible—perhaps likely—side effects:

“Social and Emotional Learning,” 0:30

[Warm female voice over images of smiling students speaking one-on-one with teachers who are nodding empathetically]: “Too many children feel invisible in school. There’s no adult they trust, nobody who really understands them. This prevents them from setting and achieving their goals, managing their emotions, and showing empathy for others. Fortunately, now there’s SEL.”

“Side effects may include reduced academic expectations and lower standards for student behavior. Excessive use of social and emotional learning, otherwise known as SEL, can lead to suspension of moral judgment among teachers, with a possibility of stunted character development in students. Imprecise definitions of SEL may cause chafing and irritation. Teachers have reported feeling unprepared to effectively implement SEL. Interest in SEL has been associated with vendors selling expensive and ineffective curriculum to career-minded district superintendents resulting in acute incidents of fad-driven opportunism. Ask your school district about SEL.”

“Americans for School Choice,” 0:60

[Music open over a street scene of identical suburban houses with female voice singing “Little boxes on a hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky.” Authoritative male voiceover begins.] “No one tells you where to live, work, or worship, what car to drive, or what clothes to wear. So why do we let someone else make the most important decision we will ever make: how to raise and educate our children. In most other countries, parents pick schools that teach their children in accordance with their values and beliefs. But in America, we just send our kids to the local neighborhood school, whether it’s good or bad, leaving schools with no incentive to do right by our kids. But it doesn’t have to be that way thanks to School Choice.”

“Side effects may include lower test scores, reduced public school funding, lower salaries, gentrification, teacher strikes and erosion of the civic mission of the ‘common school.’ Some concentration of poverty and dysfunction may occur in schools abandoned by families with choice. Incidents of profiteering have also been reported. Parental satisfaction is no guarantee of school quality. Past test scores may not be indicative of future results.”

“No Excuses Charter Schools,” 0:30

[Camera zooms from a hardscrabble city street into a bright, cheerful classroom with African American children in school uniforms raising their hands in response to a teacher’s question.] “For years, inner city schools have been failure factories, where children learn almost nothing except that education isn’t for them. But now there’s hope. No Excuses schools are well-run, safe, and orderly, putting thousands of children on the path for success in college and in life.”

“Side-effects may include curriculum narrowing, excessive test-prep, difficulties for children who can’t sit still, parents upset about strict dress codes, burdensome homework, ‘skill-and-drill’ instruction. Higher rates of student discipline including suspension have also been reported in schools using the No Excuses model. Teachers report feeling stressed by performance pressures, resulting in burnout and elevated levels of staff turnover. Ask your charter management organization if ‘No Excuses’ schooling is right for your child.”

“Progressive Educators for Project-Based Learning,” 0:60

[Opens with shots of diverse and casually-dressed students in groups of threes and fours having animated discussions over scale models in classrooms and outdoors holding notepads and scientific instruments, with teachers in the background smiling indulgently.] “School is boring. Hours of listening to teachers drone on. Bad textbooks and endless lab reports. It’s enough to make even diligent students lose their minds. Introducing Project-Based Learning, which sparks children’s imagination and natural curiosity. PBL is the cure for the common school.”

Side effects may include unstructured classrooms, leading to undisciplined and self-indulgent students who struggle in more structured academic environments. Lower test scores may follow. Teachers who use PBL often report feeling unable to effectively plan for instruction. Helicopter parenting and parental over-engagement have also been reported. For projects lasting more than four months, consult your child’s teacher.”

“Restorative Justice,” 0:60

[Cold-open to the sound of a prison cell slamming shut. Sober and concerned male voiceover.] “America has a problem. Black and brown children are far more likely to be suspended from school than white children. Harsh ‘zero-tolerance’ discipline practices criminalize children from an early age, channeling them into the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline. But now there’s a cure. When schools adopt Restorative Justice, children learn to solve their problems and avoid conflicts under the watchful eye of caring, understanding, and well-trained educators sensitive to the challenges children face.”

“Imposing restorative-justice practices on teachers who do not willingly embrace them has been known to cause lower suspension rates without addressing underlying problems, including recurrent classroom disruptions, leading students to feel less safe. Side effects may include juking the stats, lower test scores, chaotic classrooms, and cognitive dissonance when parents who support restorative justice have a child who is assaulted or bullied. Families who raise their children in strict homes with consequences for bad behavior have reported elevated blood pressure when restorative practices are adopted, leading to higher levels of homeschooling.”

* * *

The lengthy disclaimers and legalese in advertising have become the stuff of Saturday Night Live parodies and a bit of a cliché. But they serve a purpose, at least in principle: They assist consumers to make informed choices and put us on guard for warning signs. A little of that would go a long way toward helping to make education reform more widely accepted and practice enhancements stickier. It’s a bromide, but it’s true: Nearly every problem in schools was the solution to a previous problem. If we were more clear-eyed and honest in pitching and adopting policies and proposals—and more candid about side effects—we might be more apt to stick with them, anticipate complications, and adjust more thoughtfully when they surface.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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