Should MIT Create a School of Education?: A Response
The idea of a School of Education at MIT is timely. In our global knowledge- based economy how we educate our children and ourselves is one of the most important topics our society will need to consider. However, if such a School is to truly have a powerful and purposeful impact on the way we think about, organize, and discuss public education, it must avoid misconceptions that unfortunately distort public discussion and policy decisions.
Too often educational policy is dictated by rapid swings of the pendulum that are based on hysterical “reports” and/or studies by ideologically driven think tanks. Much of the evidence used to drive the dialogue of education reform is based on generalizations and lack of empirical evidence that would be deemed substandard and unscholarly in any other content area that is taught at the Institute. These misconceptions are derived from poor research techniques, insufficient data, hearsay, political agendas, and anecdotal personal experience (or lack thereof). If a School of Education at MIT is not to become one more clone of blind a priori thinking to poison and muddy the waters, it must stay clear of these all too common assumptions.
The statement that “many parents have lost confidence in the K-12 public schools” is an example of the overgeneralized statements that a School of Education at MIT should not only avoid, but actively seek to erase. What research has shown is that there is a wide spectrum of student achievement and inequity in the quality of public schools, with a very high correlation with the socio-economic status of the local community.
To stereotype a public school system that is so decentralized and diverse as ours as failing is grossly inaccurate. Ironically, while many people decry the straitjacket of “standardized testing” those same tests are often used as the sole proof that our public schools are “failing.”
Further, there is no long-term research that provides data that charter schools are more successful than their traditional counterparts. In fact, the few research studies that do exist suggest that charter schools perform no better and sometimes perform worse than traditional public schools.
The assumption that public school classrooms are uniform and standardized reflects a lack of experience in most contemporary classrooms. The concept of “differentiated instruction” in which student learning is driven by taking into account individual students’ learning styles, interests, and readiness was actually developed and conceived by public school educators. The use of differentiated instruction in teaching and organizing the classroom is currently required as part of the certification, tenure, and ongoing evaluation process of every educator in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Many public schools are also on the forefront of technology in the classroom through interactive whiteboards, projectors, Web apps, and iPads. In fact, my elementary classroom is more technologically equipped for learning than many classrooms I have observed or taught in while at MIT.
Conceptions: How MIT can be Different
• The starting point of any discussion on education must begin with an emphasis on valid and reliable research that describes actual situations in American public schools. This would include long-term physical observation of a wide range of schools and communities that generates significant qualitative data, not merely quantitative analysis of testing.
MIT is perfectly poised to create a School of Education. Not only does the Institute have the obvious strength and experience of scientific research and technological development, it has the unique asset of a strong synergy with the humanities, providing a deep toolbox in which to tackle the complex idea of human education. If such a School were to be created, and if it remained faithful to this core identity, it could meet an opportunity to nudge the landscape of public education in a more positive and intelligent direction.