Monday, February 7, 2011

Cancer research and education

When I'm not writing about CMS budget cuts, I've been reading "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer."

It's far more fascinating than depressing, but it's not good escapist fare. As I read about the long, difficult quest to save lives, I find myself thinking about the quest to save kids from educational failure.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, who bangs out bestselling books while working as a cancer researcher, explains in layman's terms how treatments that initially look successful, even miraculous, can wither under the scrutiny of long-term research. Even the best minds of medicine can be misled by their own hopes and early results, pinning their hopes on costly, invasive treatments that don't stand the test of time.

It's both inspiring and heartbreaking to read about all the children and adults who took part in randomized trials of experimental treatments. Some were destined to be denied a treatment that might have saved, or at least prolonged, their lives. Others got the cutting-edge therapy, knowing they might go through suffering and expense that would ultimately prove fruitless. Year by painful year, scientific knowledge has advanced.

Medicine is not a perfect analogy for education, of course. But I'm struck by how often, in the world of public education, the consensus jumps quickly from "This seems like a great idea" to "This is clearly the best practice and it would be wrong to deny it to any child." Any uptick in test scores can be seen as "proof" that all sorts of reform strategies are working.

Yes, real educational success is hard to measure. Yes, we want to keep intuition and innovation alive in teaching. And no, serious research doesn't yield answers by the next election or budget cycle, let alone by reporters' deadlines.

But if we can do rigorous, long-term research when it's literally a matter of life and death, shouldn't there be a better way to put educators' beliefs and visions to the test?


wiley coyote said...


I totally agree with you regarding the question you asked at the end of your article.

The problem is how to get everyone to agree on methodology and how to track data.

We all know Bright Beginnings was started by Eric Smith, a former CMS Superintendent, but it's as if no one dare touch this program or say anything negative about it, especially from another "Dr. of Education". No real research was ever done beyond the first three years. Similiar states have the same issue with their pre-K programs - lack of data to justify them.

Economic conditions have at least given an "out" to do just that.

I'm reminded of the movie, Extraordinary Measures, where a man desperately pursues a cure or at least medicine that would halt the rate of decline for Pompe disease two of his children had and were in danger of dying.

Harrison Ford played the biotech scientist trying to find a cure, but throughout the movie, you witness the different directions other scientists and companies take in their research and often times there is no collaboration.

In the end, medice was found to stop the disease and manage it.

But if we can do rigorous, long-term research when it's literally a matter of life and death, shouldn't there be a better way to put educators' beliefs and visions to the test?

Anonymous said...

OK, like you mean, like the highway billboard signs, endless news coverage and glossy brochures touting "Greatness Starts Here" after the dog and pony show debut of CMS's The Choice Plan might not have been the be all and end all of public education after all?

OMG, then we should definitely go back to forced busing since that worked so well.

Anonymous said...

You know the talent, rigor, and success of the language immersion program. You and I also know the further success these students have achieved in college and beyond. Yet the good news of these successes were never tracked beyond high school except by parents and their former teachers no matter the wide diversity and demographics of this population. Why? Funding? These students are already successful, we don't need to prove it. However, the most important factor is the parent support and push absent elsewhere here and the rest of the nation. Some things money can't change.