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Framing: More Powerful Than A Locomotive

Not long ago, I had the good fortune to find a seat at a special screening of the new documentary "Waiting for Superman" in Ann Arbor. The documentary is a skillfully constructed view of how our urban public schools often fail their students, though it is not without some serious faults. After the film, the audience heard a panel of experts, assembled by the University of Michigan, react to the film from their own perspectives. I only wish that everyone who sees the film could benefit from hearing that discussion, since it put the film into perspective. (See a recording of the discussion here.) And when we discuss the failings of public education, perspective is what we sorely need. Later that evening, I happened across a TED Talk by mathematician Arthur Benjamin; in less than two minutes, he lays out a proposal to shift the ultimate aim of secondary school math away from calculus to a study of probability and statistics. (Calculus will still be important for science and engineering, but statistics has wider application in the everyday world, Benjamin argues.) "Waiting for Superman" is, I believe, evidence that Dr. Benjamin is right. The film brazenly tugs at our emotions, and with good reason. There is no excuse for any American child to be failed by their public schools. This is a promise we have made to each other, and we have been working for years to live up to it. Doth the filmmaker protest too much? Saying that some schools, often operating in extreme circumstances, are failing their students is a long way from establishing that our entire system of public education is broken. But that is precisely the premise of the film: that public education is broken, and broken everywhere. Yet the film focuses on only five families, four of them living in difficult circumstances where the children attend urban schools saddled with poverty and disintegrating community. How do the film makers make the leap? Essentially, the film discounts the impact of poverty and unemployment in our declining urban centers. Instead, it slips in the contention that those communities are crumbling because the schools have failed, rather than the other way around. And while the narrator offers this idea as a new and compelling argument, it is never addressed explicitly again. Rather than actually discussing the idea, the audience is left with a subliminal impression that shapes our view of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, that is true of most of the central elements of the film. Teachers are good, we are told, but "the system" is bad. The system, it seems, is an ill-defined combination of teachers' union contracts and government regulation. "Reform" and those who advocate it are good, but what "reform" means is never quite defined. The audience is left with the idea that it means a victory over "the system." And while much is made of the efforts by Michelle Rhee during her tenure as head of the Washington DC public schools, the precise content of the "reforms" she pushed is never quite made clear. Biased samples and the fickle arrow of causation What has this to do with the study of probability and statistics? The study of applied statistics is an exercise in accepting uncertainty and learning to qualify judgments. As my father used to start off his lectures to students, "Ye shall never know the truth." Samples can be misleading, and probabilistic statements are the best conclusions one can draw. You learn about biased samples; you learn about spurious correlations; you learn about the difference between correlation and causation, and the care that must be exercised in inferring what causes what. You learn, in short, to respect the limits of your knowledge and to tread carefully when looking for something you hope to find. In the case of "Waiting for Superman," a powerful story about a handful of families - who are arguably representative of important segments of our society getting the short end of the stick - is being leveraged into a call to scrap what we have and try something new. In this case, the "something new" seems to be charter schools, though again, the charters featured in the film are run by extraordinarily intelligent and committed people who are working to break the cycle of poverty. But does this really hold out a model for all our schools? (How many people join the Peace Corps, and how many turn it into a career? Can we count on staffing an entire education system with people like that? Does enthusiasm trump training and experience?) Remember the good old days of "separate but unequal"? Added to the selectively chosen examples, the film also posits that American public schools were working "pretty well" until the 1960s - when unions and regulation became more intrusive, it argues. This perspective helps to underline the idea that schools are deteriorating and failing. But it ignores certain inconvenient facts: the inequities of segregation, which persisted de facto if not de jure at least through the end of the century and still haunts us; systems that tracked students into "academic" and "vocational" paths from early years, and the systems that funneled children struggling with poverty into special education programs, where they were not expected to achieve much. Schools have indeed changed, and often considerably for the better. Much has been made of declining test scores, but careful analysis tends to show that the declines are mostly due to greater access to education and wider adoption of standardized tests. (In the early years, only the elite college-bound students would take tests like the SAT; now the similar ACT is required of all Michigan high school students, regardless of their plans.) It's possible for the averages to go down even if all sub-groups are improving, as long as the sub-groups who do less well on average are also growing the fastest. In short, what if the "good old days" weren't? To sum up, the key question is this: does the film really expose a central problem in American public education, and does the proposed solution make sense in any case? Those who have been working in or studying public education for some time will, no doubt, come up with a whole host of things that are wrong with our schools. But are the problems the same everywhere, and if not, aren't the solutions likely to be equally diverse? Do all or most American public schools really "fail" their students? If not, does it make sense to start over rather than improve on what we have? We've got nothing to lose - or do we? This is where the politics of framing comes in. The solution we are likely to choose for a given problem is shaped very dramatically by the way the problem is framed. Social scientists have been working on this phenomenon for years, and whole sub-disciplines (such as behavioral economics) have been spawned from this work. The basic argument of this work (called "prospect theory"1) is that people will be more willing to take risky measures to remedy what they view as a dramatic loss than they would be willing to take risks to generate an equivalent improvement upon what they view as an acceptable state of affairs. In other words, it's not the gain from the risk that matters, it's whether you think you are in trouble or not.2 Applied to the political sphere, some scholars have found evidence that citizens are more likely to support dramatic and risky economic policies if they believe the economy has deteriorated significantly than if they feel conditions are relatively stable - even if the actual conditions are the same in each case.3 What matters is the context in which the conditions are seen. Some have applied the same argument to the politics of revolutions: that the work of revolutionaries is really to frame current conditions so that most people believe that the conditions are intolerable, even if they previously viewed them as tolerable enough. If people come to feel that their condition is intolerable, it makes it easier for normally risk-averse people to support something as dramatically risky as a revolution.4 I see the same dynamic at work here. Complaints about public schools are nothing new; people have been decrying the declining quality of our schools virtually since the founding of the Republic. But if we can all be convinced that our schools are failing everywhere, it makes it much easier to promote a risky program that radically restructures public education. All the efforts to make constructive change within the current system - and there are many, but known mostly to those in the education profession - count for naught. Desperate times demand desperate measures, the saying goes. But desperate times are in the eye of the beholder, and "Waiting for Superman" is a very effective attempt to re-frame American public education as a disaster in need of clean-slate reform. But what if it's not true? What will we have lost? And who will stand to gain? I doubt it will be our children.
1Kahneman, Daniel and Amos Tversky: 1979, "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk," Econometrica 47, 263–291. Somewhat ironically, Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work with the late Amos Tversky developing prospect theory, will be delivering the keynote speech at the University of Michigan winter commencement this year. 2Quattrone, G. A. and A. Tversky: 1988, "Contrasting Rational and Psychological Analyses of Political Choice," American Political Science Review 82, 719–736. 3Weyland, K.: 1996, "Risk Taking in Latin American Economic Restructuring: Lessons from Prospect Theory," International Studies Quarterly 40, 185–208. 4Berejikian, J.: 1992, "Revolutionary Collective Action and the Agent-Structure Problem," American Political Science Review 86, 647-657.
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