nihilism in, nihilism out

Someone recently asked me about the growing anti-homework movement. I said I was agnostic, but generally felt that most students are probably getting assigned too much. But was it really true, she said, that research suggests that homework doesn’t improve grades or test scores? I told her that results are somewhat mixed – they’re always mixed – but yeah, the research is not encouraging. But how, she wondered, could I then not be more adamantly anti-homework than I am?

I laughed and told her that if teachers only did things that we knew had a meaningful impact on grades and test scores, they wouldn’t have anything to do.

This is the sort of thing that gets me accused of being an “edunihilist” sometimes. People accuse me of hopelessness and cynicism. I am told that my read of the data and of the policy context means leaves us with nowhere to go. But to me this implies a much larger nihilism. It implies that the only thing that matters in education is quantitative metrics, and it also implies that broader socioeconomic changes that could reduce inequality and close achievement gaps are impossible. What people who are stuck in test-scores-and-neoliberalism mindset are saying is that only a very narrow perspective on education matters and that the basic distribution of economic advantage in this country will never change. Who’s the real nihilist?

So for example, the funding question. Conservative types love to say “we can’t just throw money at the problem.” Are they right? Well, if you’re in an advanced economy and all you care about is test scores, sure:

But if we recognize that schools perform a set of vastly important social functions that have nothing to do with standardized tests or even with learning as traditionally defined – including housing, and often feeding, children in a safe environment for half their waking day, providing them with socialization and the ability to form meaningful peer-group relationships, and providing the only support for those with developmental and cognitive disabilities that many families will ever be able to take advantage of. I support public schools because I believe in education as typically defined, yes, but I also support public schools because they are one of the most direct forms of redistributive social programs in our country. If they provide nothing else for a warm place for kids to stay in the winter and a library of books for kids to read when they get bored, I’m fine with it. And if education has gotten much more expensive, it might be time to look at the runaway capitalist profiteering in this country that has also raised the costs of medicine, housing, and childcare.

It’s true: I believe that the degree of assumed plasticity of outcomes for both individual students and groups of students at particular performance bands has been broadly exaggerated in our educational debates. That is, I think what’s plausible in terms of improving quantitative outcomes through education-specific policy interventions is far more limited than the “no excuses” rhetoric lets on. I believe this because of a vast array of research showing remarkable continuity in individual student outcomes over the course of life, even in profoundly different educational circumstances. Is that nihilism? No. There are all sorts of other benefits that education can provide, to individuals and society, than just raising test scores or graduation rates. But assigning the people who perform poorly in school to lives of economic distress and drudgery, even though we know much of that outcome is the result of accidents of birth and bad luck? Sounds like nihilism to me.