Learning From a Study Abroad Course in Israel

Much of my recent research has focused on what students learn from field trips. I’m inclined to believe that direct exposure to enriching activities conveys a significant amount of learning that cannot easily be obtained from abstract instruction in classrooms.

I don’t just see this as something that only K-12 schools should consider. Graduate training in education policy may also significantly benefit from exposing doctoral students to more and varied school experiences. It’s fine to learn how to manage large data bases or how to do the latest adjustment to standard errors, but too few education policy programs are teaching their students to think more deeply about our field, including asking bigger and more interesting questions or considering how policy may need to vary across context.

The doctoral program in education policy at the University of Arkansas, however, is making a concerted effort to give our Ph.D. students more and varied direct experiences in schools. In particular, we prioritize having students work on randomized field experiments in which they collect their own data in a variety of schools. Seeing first-hand how programs are operating and understanding the messiness involved in data collection teaches our students things about education policy that they could never learn by staring at numbers in a spreadsheet all day long. Field trips may be just as important for doctoral training as K-12 education.

To further our commitment to this graduate level version of field trips, Bob Costrell and I developed and just completed leading a study abroad course for our doctoral students in Israel. Two cohorts of our Ph.D. students were offered the opportunity to tour Israel for 10 days, following the completion of assigned readings and a few days of preparation. Our tour included discussions with experts at Hebrew University, Shalem College, and the Shoresh Institution, as well as visits to school programs in Jerusalem, the Galil, and Tel Aviv. Because our Department is in a very strong position financially, we were able to offer this course at basically no cost and all of the eligible students chose to participate.

Why did we take our graduate students to Israel and what did they learn from going there? We went to Israel because it has many of the same educational challenges we face in the U.S. Their test scores are lagging in international comparisons. They have stubborn education gaps that have resisted efforts to close them. They have centralized standards, curriculum, and test-based accountability along with decentralized school choice that struggle to balance individual freedom and national unity.

But if we just wanted to see educational challenges like our own, we could have visited schools in the U.S. The real benefit of going to Israel was seeing similar challenges being addressed in very different contexts. It became abundantly clear that many of the reforms we pursue in the U.S. do not work the same way in Israel and vice versa.

For example, the “tight-loose” approach favored by supporters of Common Core combines centralized standards with school autonomy over how best to teach those standards. In the U.S. tight-loose tends to devolve quickly into tight-tight as schools are so eager to comply with central mandates that they focus narrowly on centrally determined objectives and exercise relatively little autonomy in selecting different paths for achieving those objectives. In Israel, their “start-up” culture facilitates less slavish obedience to central-mandates and more school and teacher autonomy in how they achieve centrally determined objectives. Of course, these are broad observations and there is considerable variability within both the U.S. and Israel.

But the point is that context matters. The same policy with the same incentive system will work very differently in different places, across as well as within countries. The dominant economic approach to education policy tends to think of schools and educators as inter-changeable widgets. The same policy with the same incentives should produce the same results. Then we are shocked each time we try at scale something that worked as a pilot program only to discover that we get very different results. Rick Hess has been warning us about how much the context of policy implementation matters, but perhaps we can only really learn this lesson when we see those very different contexts for ourselves.

There are also problems associated with educational tourism. There is a risk that people will select on the dependent variable and draw lessons about what “works” without relying on a reasonably rigorous research design. While there are limits to what can be learned with confidence from direct experience, there are also limits to what can be learned from large data sets abstracted from context. Education policy needs to do a better job of balancing rigorous methods with contextual understanding. In the Department of Education Reform’s doctoral program we are striving to achieve that balance and are committing our resources to provide that balanced training to our students.

— Jay Greene

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

This post originally appeared on his blog.

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