Burden of Proof Dilemma

I’ve been meaning to make a point about the focus on academic results in education reform, and today’s post from Sara Mead creates the right opportunity.  In her words:

Education is an incredibly status quo-biased field and it seems like any time any one wants to do things differently, there’s incredible pressure on that person or organization to demonstrate that the new/different approach is–if not perfect–then at least radically better in every possible respect than the status quo.

This is such an important point, and it’s something I’ve taken to calling the “burden of proof dilemma” of education reform.  I am in near-constant conversation with education policy makers and practitioners, and there is a tremendous amount of risk aversion in the field – even among reformers.  Some of that comes from compliance-driven political cultures, and some of it comes from fear of change.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard folks say “Failure is not an option,” with pride.  Well, guess what?  Failure is the present reality in many corners of our educational systems, and the only thing the “failure is not an option” mindset creates is risk aversion.

I guess my basic point is this: if the risk calculus is that “change” offers more uncertainty – and more chances for failure – than the status quo, something is wrong.  Only about half of African-American students gain a high school diploma in this country, and while we’re the richest nation in the world, we do worse than most industrialized nations on international benchmarking.  Why is the burden of proof for new approaches higher than that for the pitiful status quo?

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3 Responses to Burden of Proof Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits (2.10.2011)

  2. john thompson says:

    Yeah, something is wrong. Plenty is wrong. That should speak for caution as much as innovation.

    Consider a third option. The wisest path is to demand a burden of proof that makes it uncomfortable for you, the reformer. That makes it incumbent on you to convince others.

    Please consider that it is much easier to do harm than to do good, and the harm done by failed experimnts typically causes more damage than the good that is done from successful reforms.

    Sure, it makes your job tougher. But the first rule of education reform should be “First, do no harm.”a

  3. jim kohlmoos says:

    Excellent point about the increasing sense of risk aversion in the reform arena. Indeed it is a dilemma. I also think it is fueled by the accountability paradox: while stronger accountability systems may be a catalyst for change, it can also have he opposite effect in focusing people on compliance, particularly when multiple funding streams are involved.

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