David Brooks Can’t Have It Both Ways

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times this week: “The Two Cultures.” It’s an interesting analysis of how conservatives and liberals think about current economic policy.

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ op-ed in the New York Times this week: “The Two Cultures.” It’s an interesting analysis of how conservatives and liberals think about current economic policy.

Brooks — who has called for highly mechanistic reforms in teaching and public education — reprimands liberals for their overly rationalistic approaches to getting our nation’s economy moving in the right direction. Indeed, he virtually taunts them for claiming that “the performance of the economic machine can be predicted with quantitative macroeconomic models” and for ignoring indicators that recognize human psychological responses to growing deficits and the “fear” growing out by anticipated increases in interest rates.

In describing the failure of the liberal model undergirding the Democrats’ stimulus package, he continues his sharp-edged rant: The “liberal technicians” have “amputated those things that can’t be contained in (their models), like emotional contagions, cultural particularities, and webs of relationships.

So why, I wonder, when it comes to thinking about teaching and public education, has Brooks consistently favored the short-cut, 1980s-styled mechanistic teacher training models promulgated by those who oppose teaching as a profession? He has called for teachers to be judged primarily by value-added methods — the very VAMs developed by statisticians using macroeconomic models. Brooks’s writings have suggested that schools need to be judged primarily by standardized test score results — irrespective of the context in which teachers teach and students learn. Or, to put it in his words, he proposes a school reform philosophy “that excludes psychology, emotion and morality.”

But maybe he’s had a change of heart. Given his analysis of the faulty thinking behind liberal economic policy, will Mr. Brooks soon call for more intensive professional preparation for 21st century schools to ensure that teachers know a great deal about how and why children learn (psychology) as well as how to teach fractions? Will he recognize the instability of current value-added models in assessing teacher effects? Will he call for professionally trained evaluators to use hard quantitative evidence of student learning, but in the context of the many complexities of teaching  and schooling?

Will he point out that certain teaching working conditions — e.g., “emotional contagions, cultural particularities, and webs of relationships” — do affect teachers and their efforts to improve student achievement?

I hope he does begin to raise these important questions. And if he does not, I hope that policymakers, practitioners, and the public will ask him and others who seem to lose their train of thought when it comes to education policy, “Why not?” What is good for sound economic thinking and action might be good for sound education thinking and action as well.

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