We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

We’ve all had a friend who, at some point, was dating someone really terrible. Only when the couple finally breaks up can you breathe a sigh of relief and speak freely about the psychotic, monstrous ex who was ruining your friend’s life. They never had a future, you say! It was doomed from the start! Your friend listens to Taylor Swift on loop, and declares that they are never, ever getting back together.

Then they get back together. And even though brunch with your friend is awkward now, you can’t unsay what you said.

Every decade or so, we have a screaming, crying, plate-throwing fight with top-down education. We broke up with it over New Math and Whole Language once the data came back telling us that neither approach had much merit. Like those bad boyfriends and girlfriends, the allure of big, superhero ideas claiming to save American education are so powerful that we can't keep away from them. The next thing you know, you're moving in with the Common Core.

You might expect our friends to tell us that we’re making the same mistakes all over again, but for some reason, they don’t. Why not? Perhaps because, while just about everyone has evidence-based relationship advice to dispense, they actually know remarkably little about how people learn. We know that Head Start is effective for some children, but not at scale. We aren’t sure if grit is the key to academic success or a recipe for unremitting failure. And we aren’t even close to understanding how the brain works — a professor of psychology at New York University wrote in The New York Times that "we scientists are not only far from a comprehensive explanation of how the brain works; we’re also not even in agreement about the best way to study it, or what questions we should be asking."

And despite all the compelling technology we have brought into classrooms, we have also changed very little in the way we teach over the past 50 years. Did you learn French or Spanish in high school? If you didn’t study abroad to immerse yourself in the language, you probably aren’t fluent. It’s possible that we’re worse at teaching language than anything else, but more likely, we’re bad at teaching everything, and foreign language proficiency just makes it that obvious (I can’t tell right away whether you’re fluent in calculus).

The reality is that we have a lot of experimentation to do before we know what kinds of approaches work, and for which students. So why do we keep going back to one-size-fits-all statewide or national programs? Why would we even think that we know the one correct approach for every student in a city the size of Los Angeles or Chicago? Maybe it sets a comforting baseline for our reforms, with every idea having some research behind it, some really smart people who like it, and a glamorously high price tag. In other words, we can introduce it to our parents — or our school boards or state legislatures.

There are some promising approaches on the K-12 horizon. Programs like New Classrooms are showing solid results. In states with strong charter laws, charter schools are outperforming district schools by a widening margin. And ed tech startups raised almost $2 billion in funding last year, heightening hope that they are finally serving teachers effectively. These programs seem to be going well, but before we turn any of them into a grand unified theory, let’s try them out mindfully and see how they serve different cohorts of students. The way to improve education is to accept how much we simply do not know, and set up structures that foster experimentation, choice, and different approaches for different children.

Very few love songs are about breaking up and getting back together; maybe popular culture doesn’t celebrate reunification because we know it almost never works out the second time around. Once we accept that there are unknown unknowns in the way we teach and learn, we can move on to greater innovation — and commission Taylor Swift to deliver the message to top-down education that we are never, ever getting back together.