Common Sense Reform, Evidence, and Faith Based Education

Common Sense Reform, Evidence, and Faith Based Education

By J.R. Wilson

The reform agenda promoted and supported by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan includes STEM schools, longer school days, longer school years, national standards, national assessments, charter schools, merit pay and evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, and school restructuring. What evidence supporting these measures have they provided? What are they basing their decisions on? A search did not uncover any evidence or reference to empirical research findings but found some interesting statements supporting their reform measures.

The commitment the President made to “restoring integrity to science policy, and making decisions on the basis of evidence, rather than ideology” could and should be extended to education since part of his science policy includes improving achievement in math and science. Ever wonder what evidence the President and his Secretary of Education provide for decisions made regarding major reform measures?

Research has been conducted on some of the reform measures. If one really scrutinizes the findings, the evidence does not always support the reform practice. Often, anecdotal evidence and ideological reports are accepted in lieu of empirical evidence. Let’s see what kind of supporting evidence and rationale are being used to promote the slate of currently vogue reform measures.

The President has indicated the Race to the Top requirements are “based on the very best evidence about what works”. The evidence seems to lie in the consensus Arne Duncan and educational experts arrived at about what will produce results. Consensus apparently is now a form of evidence-based policymaking where evidence is optional. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s of no consequence whether or not empirical evidence supports a reform as long as we all agree that it ought to work. That’s a good enough reason to subject students across the country to the reform impact. States are being told, asked, bribed, and possibly coerced with NCLB, RTTT, and A Blueprint for Reform to adopt many of the Administration’s reform measures, “few of which are truly ‘evidence-based’”.

When Arne Duncan was asked what evidence supports the common sense reforms, as he refers to them, he answered, “I think there’s a lot of scientific evidence that the status quo doesn’t work.” This unspecified scientific evidence is justification for drastic unproven reform measures. Basically, we know what is happening now isn’t working so let’s institute this or that reform, never mind that no evidence supports the reform and in some cases evidence shows the promoted reform is not effective. The current Administration has become the status quo.

Certainly, we can easily reach consensus that the status quo doesn’t work, therefore, common sense justifies the use of any reform measure we believe will improve schools. Are our nation’s leaders setting a decision making example for educational leaders and administrators at the local and state level with their decision strategies or are they mirroring strategies already in use across the country? Have our leaders lost their way? Have we been led astray? Are our decision makers exercising the highly coveted critical thinking and deep understanding we so want to develop in our students? Is the education problem in this country really more of a political problem?

Consider the examples of a few reform measures. A failing school will certainly fail no more if it is closed as one of the restructuring options. What about the students? Does losing their community neighborhood school ensure success in a new setting? Where is the empirical research showing students from a closed failed school make greater academic gains than students from a failed school with similar demographics that remains open? While common sense may say it is reasonable to use student test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, research findings indicate this practice is unstable and unreliable. Where’s the research that shows using merit pay as an incentive results in improved student achievement scores?

Current political practices are such that available evidence is often ignored, misused, misinterpreted, or skewed to favor the prevailing favored faith based (and often vendor-based) common sense reform measures. Before buying into the boilerplate blather about a reform’s expected efficacy, you are encouraged to do your own review of the research. Dig deeper for evidence to see if more than common sense and scientific evidence about the status quo supports the latest reform fads.

Where will the implementation of the reform measures supported by common sense, consensus, and faith-based education lead us? Robert Pondiscio says it well in Nineteen Points and One Very Bad Idea: “Fast-forward. It is 2016. After a years of holding teachers accountable for short-term gains, and creating incentives that actively work against the buildup of knowledge, with disappointing results, we wake up and realize we are going about this the wrong way. A few look back and say we should have listened to our Cassandras. But other energetic, well-meaning reformers see it another way. Instead of realizing we have fatally neglected a robust curriculum, that we are reaping what we have sown, they will conclude that as a nation we simply have no good 8th grade reading teachers. Aggressive, immediate action is needed.”

No doubt, we will once again have the opportunity to ignore and/or misinterpret the evidence, identify new reform measures to inflict on the education system, and start a new cycle once teachers have been blamed and thoroughly punished.


J.R. Wilson is a parent and an education advocate with 25+ years experience in public education as an elementary teacher, curriculum consultant, staff development coordinator, and principal.

This article was originally published October 19, 2010, on at:


The article has been republished on Betrayed – Why Public Education is Failing at:




This has been published on The Underground Parent with permission from the author.




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