Are things basically good or basically bad in education? A small business owner friend called me after a several year hiatus. I asked about his daughter’s school district. I’d heard the district was facing numerous challenges to its traditional schools from a charter organization that has been having enormous success in diverse, close-to-Chicago suburbs. My friend had no idea how the school was doing. After some probing, he admitted that, even though he moved to the suburb for the school, the only thing he knew was that it had a good soccer team. From this parent’s perspective, picking a school was a relatively easy decision made on the basis of two default beliefs: (1) conventional wisdom recommends moving to a suburb, and (2) “good” schools, regardless where located, are generally doing well. 

What’s your default? Nudge, the 2008 book about the power of defaults by University of Chicago economists, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, highlight the importance of defaults in public policy, economics and psychology. If you have to opt-out of a savings plan at work, more people are more likely to stay in the plan. We have default beliefs as well, and when a situation calls for quick decision-making, we rely on our defaults. School leaders rely on their defaults all the time, and the biggest default on which leaders rely is their answer to this question.

Are schools locally, statewide, nationally and internationally generally doing well? There are plenty of arguments on either side, and I’m going to outline a few today.

Education needs to change. Here are the arguments of this camp:

1.     Test scores in the US are not increasing despite increased spending on education. The Program in International Student Assessment (PISA) and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) sample students in the US and worldwide. They are the go-to assessments for determining national education health. The US education system is doing worse than 29 other systems worldwide (according to PISA). The US system is spending more (but doing showing no gains since the 1970s (according to NAEP). This signals that at marginal levels - at your at the school district, school or classrooms - something is wrong.

2.     The majority of students in school are either bored or overwhelmed. This is a common refrain of believers in the promise of personalized learning. They believe that that there is a way for students to be constantly engaged, motivated and inspired. This camp argues that the majority of what happens today in schools is students sit and listen. Technology can personalize learning.

3.     School calendars, school days and daily student experiences look very much the same now as they did in the 1950s. If the structure hasn't changed then it's likely that content,  presentation, delivery and effectiveness haven't changed either, those in this camp believe.

4.     School systems that are doing better than national and international competitors cost far too much. Another reason to be in this camp is thinking that schools cost too much for what they do. The key comparison high-cost people notice is the lack of a reasonable relationship between increased dollars spent and increased educational achievement. For example, it is fairly common in Massachusetts, a state known for high-quality education, for cost-conscious people to compare the per-pupil cost of education in Massachusetts and Florida and say, “Hey, Florida is spending way less and getting similar results.” They also say, in Illinois to give another example, where the operating expense per pupil varies wildly from $24,000 in wealthy north-of-Chicago districts to $10,000 downstate, the increased cost does not provide value to residents when are educational outcomes in the north-of-Chicago districts are not twice as high as downstate.

5.     In the good old days, schools did better. Some people believe there is a significant need for change because schools have deviated so much from the “good old days.”  This is a bit of a backward argument since these people are calling for change that's tantamount to rejecting changes of the last century. Nonetheless, there is a major constituency for this argument supporting a default that schools are generally not doing well.

Education is doing just fine. These are some of the arguments by people whose default position is that schools are doing just fine.

1.     Test scores have not decreased. In fact, schools continue to do a very good job with the increasing numbers of students staying in school. This camp argues that as schools are preparing a greater number of students for college, schools are doing a better job than they were in the past. This argument says that schools are doing just fine because national test score averages do not reveal the incredible diversity of effectiveness of schools, classrooms and teachers. The US is large, and averages do not come close to telling the full story, this camp argues.

2.     Teacher-student relationships have never been better. This argument for why schools are doing well is based on a belief that school effectiveness is a bad way to assess education. Education should be measured by the effectiveness of individual teachers with individual students. The existing model for structuring schools has worked for a long time. Even if teachers can become more effective through unfettered access to new technologies, looking at any data at the school level misses measuring where learning is really happening. This is an argument frequently made by teachers' unions that argue that granting teachers the supports they request and need will do the most to increase student achievement.

3.     Natural growth of children has not changed. People who believe schools are fine often argue that a lot of what schools do is permit the natural development of the human brain. This is the schools-as-babysitters argument. Schools can seek greater efficiency, but brain development limits also set school efficiency limits. If schools can't get much more effective or efficient because the brain only develops so quickly, this group argues, there is no reason to invest more or seek to improve schools. Schools have hit a performance ceiling.

4.     If it was good enough for me, it is good enough for my children. Education is unique because it is one of a few experiences in life that virtually all parents have experienced themselves. Few people will argue that they understand how to do brain surgery. They do not understand brain surgery because they have never studied it or experienced it. Schooling is different. Everyone has been through school, and many schools-are-fine people argue that if it was good enough for me it is good enough for the next generation of students.

What's the impact of your default?

Schools need to do a better job of selecting leaders based on their defaults about education. Once identifying whether things are generally good things or generally in need of change, the school knows whether the leader will defend change or defend the status quo in shoot-from-the-hip situations. Most decisions require more than shooting from the hip, especially decisions that garner the attention of higher-ups, but leaders confront all kinds of issues where they need to rely on their gut. The decisions simply come too quickly to do otherwise. Change leaders have a duty to put themselves in harm’s way and make risky decisions. I can hear responses to this thinking already: "Well, if you have to shoot from the hip, then stop and think before you make an impulsive default-based decision." Even this response betrays a default position, the default is that schools are doing fine and the best proposition is leaving them alone. If you are a everything-is-fine person, this is likely what you'd say. Our default beliefs affect much of how we live and work.