Running the numbers on the education system

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In his latest book, “Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies,” renowned statistician and research scientist Howard Wainer applies the tools of his trade to answer a question that affects every American: What is wrong with our education system?

“Education is a complex system — so is putting out a newspaper or making paper for that matter. To improve a complex system, the worst way to do it is to have a committee, like Education 2020, to make recommendations. Nobody’s that smart,” says Wainer, currently at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “The way to improve things is to have a constant program of experimentation. For example, when you manufacture paper, you may think you can improve things by increasing the acidity of the mixture. You’re making small changes and analyzing them, not doing sweeping things based on panel recommendations.”

In his 13th book, Wainer pokes holes in almost every aspect of conventional education policy — college rankings, admissions, aptitude tests — including a scathing critique of No Child Left Behind.
“This idea of making teachers the villains in this particular mystery is ridiculous,” says Wainer. “To look at a change in test score and attribute it causally to the teacher is absurd. For one thing, you can’t make the comparisons they’re trying to make: Suppose I gained 10 points in French and you gained 10 in physics. Is my French teacher as good as your physics teacher? Was Mozart better at music than Babe Ruth was at hitting? Tests can’t tell you that.”


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