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What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?

November 1, 2010

ACT member Larry Ferlazzo recently wrote a blog post that was picked up in The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post.  He started off writing about the value of being “unprincipled” – a provocative idea, but in fact, it just means that absolute certainty can be a liability when dealing with complex issues and problems.  To support his argument, Larry linked to a blog post titled “Strong Opinions, Weakly Held,” by one of my favorite writers, Bob Sutton.  To sum up the advice, I’d put it this way; leaders should have strong opinions about the work they do and the direction in which they’re headed, and they must be willing to change those opinions when new evidence and stronger arguments come along.

We’ve seen what happens to politicians when they change their minds, unfortunately.  Accusations of a flip-flop can be devastating.  I have trouble believing that voters truly want leaders who would never change their minds, but for those who oppose the politician or candidate anyways, it’s an opportunity to go on the offensive.  Once the attack begins, the media report the reactions much better than they do the background, or the subtle and ambivalent set of quiet reactions many of us might have.  So, I don’t hold out much hope that, in the education debate, we’ll see Arne Duncan or Barack Obama own up to any weakly held opinions – although they absolutely should.  They’ve come too far down the road of more tests, more standards, more accountability to hit the brakes now, or ask for directions.

However, it would just be nice if some school superintendents, school boards, and others in education “reform” debates, those who don’t have to worry about the polls, would either admit they’ve been wrong, or tell us what it would take exactly to change their minds.  It’s so simple and intuitive to believe that you can use state tests to evaluate teaching – but no educational research organization will endorse that approach.  It’s so simple and intuitive to believe that if we just get rid of bad teachers, education will improve, but much harder to face the fact that we have systems that help create bad teachers, and so much teacher bashing going on that good teachers leave and many potential teachers choose other careers.  It’s so simple and intuitive to believe that if we reward the best teachers with higher pay, we’ll retain them and also motivate others to strive for better teaching – until you read about study after study documented in the book Drive (Dan Pink) – and find out that high stakes and increased pressure actually inhibit performance on tasks that are complex and creative.  It’s so simple and intuitive to believe that a failing school just needs to clean house, start fresh with a new staff, and voilà, a turnaround – until you find out that the same schools you’re turning around this year are the ones you reconstituted most recently, or their replacements.

So, seriously, how many studies, how many experts, and how many examples of failure do we have to present to Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, or Margaret SpellingsRepresentatives Susan Davis and Jared Polis, or Joel Klein, or Ramon Cortines, or state or local school boards, or the Los Angeles Times,  before they’ll say, “Hmmm… it’s possible we were wrong about that.”  Instead, we get “faith-based” education policy (as Ken Bernstein recently wrote) – and real evidence only gets in the way of a good story.

Now you might be asking – you should be asking – “David, give us an example of your own strongly felt but weakly held opinions.  Have you ever changed your mind?” Sure.  Sticking to education…

1.  “Performance pay” – I used to believe that the current system for most public schools and teachers was as close as we could get to a fair approach.  Now, while I don’t like the label “performance pay” I am interested in seeing reforms that would alter teaching roles and practices in ways that accomplish some of the goals stated by many performance pay advocates.  I am (for now!) strongly opposed to using any state tests in a reformed system, but I think there are models out there in Denver, Minnesota, and New Mexico that should be studied and more broadly imitated or replicated.  The shift for me began with reading a Teacher Solutions report by members of the Teacher Leaders Network.

2.  Using points, averages, and zeroes in grading practices – Too long a discussion for this blog post, but to summarize, I started out teaching the way I had been taught, and the way most other teachers seemed to be teaching.  I thought zeroes were an appropriate penalty for lack of work, and that harsh consequences would motivate better learning among my students.  I thought averages would keep them accountable, and points would keep grading as objective as possible.  I won’t lay out all of the reasons I changed my mind, but suffice it to say that those were “strong opinions, weakly held.”  When I studied more about other assessment and grading practices, I chose a better alternative.  My journey is not complete, as I continue to read about standards-based grading in fine blogs by Joe Bower and Jason Buell, and pay close attention to Alfie Kohn, while also bearing in mind ideas gleaned from  Douglas Reeves and Robert Marzano.  Some people find those thinkers to be in opposition to each other, so I’m finding that my own approach is constantly a work in progress, much more in the past four years than in the prior twelve.

3.  Tracking – I used to believe that it was necessary to have higher and lower tracks in a subject area in order to meet the needs of students with different skill levels.  Then, I read as much as I could about the research on tracking, I studied the concept of differentiation, and found some vivid examples to support the idea that, yes, you can teach a challenging curriculum to every student, and that a non-tracked class can be taught and supported in ways that elevate the performance of every student.  (See Detracking for Excellence and Equity, by Carol Corbett Burris and Delia T. Garrity).

What are some of your examples?  What widespread opinions out there should be more weakly held?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 5:43 am

    I used to believe that it was worth picketing to reduce class size, because class size was the most important standard for teachers’ ability to provide quality instruction. (Note: use of the word “picketing” indicates that I held this belief–strongly–early in my career, when we picketed annually or every time the contract was re-opened.)

    Then I looked at the research, and more importantly, looked at my own practice, and realized that teacher quality far superseded class size as a cause of student success. There are limits to this, of course–there’s a huge difference between 30 kids in a first grade class and 18 kids, differences that will result in reduced learning at a critical point in the education process. But a lot of the class size warring results in a reduction of one or two kids, evenly distributed across a staff of teachers. Class size might well be determined teacher by teacher, rather than by unilateral contractual language.

    Ducking for cover.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      November 4, 2010 12:43 pm


      Just kidding – and thanks for leaving a comment. I’ll bet you that some teachers and administrators agree, and already practice some form of “strategic imbalancing” – if I may invent a term for your idea. In fact, some wise practitioners might recognize that it is in everyone’s interest to provide some slight allowances for new teachers. Some teachers are probably known to be more accommodating or welcoming for mid-year arrivals, and some might prefer a slightly larger than they would otherwise receive. For example, I’ve had 9th grade English classes that had a cap of 20, and in practice were often slightly less. However, I actually prefer a class of 24-25 in terms of classroom energy, dynamics, and flexibility and variety for groupings – so I wouldn’t complain about picking up an extra student here and there.

  2. November 6, 2010 11:03 am

    I used to think the corporate reform solution made sense. Not anymore.

  3. Betsy Connolly permalink
    November 17, 2010 11:31 am

    I’m a board member in a suburban district north of L.A. I used to think that if you gathered the facts, shared informed perspectives, and acted in the best interest of children, the path would be clear. It isn’t. I often feel as if we are playing a three dimensional chess game, every move having unintended consequences and the stakes are so, so high. The current crop of students only pass this way once, we owe them our best right now but the community wants, with good reason, a school district that enhances property values, with its excellent reputation, promotes public safety, with engaging programs that keep students involved and in school, and is ready to provide a 21st century education to our future students. This would be a challenge even in the best of times. Today we face declining enrollment, charter school competition, districts of choice and fictional budgets from Sacramento that virtually ensure mid-year cuts. Anyone who thinks the right way is clear, is woefully misinformed.

  4. November 21, 2010 5:11 pm

    I have some strongly held beliefs that I have attempted to defend in my blog:

    Group work is vastly over-used in current K-12 education:

    Students should be placed at the appropriate instructional level (differentiation is a sham)

    Standards-based Grading is interesting, but only works in a reductionist teaching style


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  2. Fox Business and Terry Moe Distort Education Issues to Slam Unions « InterACT
  3. How My Thinking about School Reform Has Changed over the Decades (Part 1) | InterACT

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