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Vail Daily column: Lack of critical thought

“What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

— Carl Sagan, scientist

Among the “global-ready skills” our kids are learning in Eagle County Schools is “critical thinking and problem solving.” This particular skill asks students to develop the ability to review complex (and sometimes contradictory) evidence and then make an informed judgment based on that evidence.



We all know (but too often forget) that all evidence is not created equal. Wade into any political or controversial topic and you will be overwhelmed with opinion, conjecture, wishful thinking or outright lies paraded around as fact — usually for the purpose of manipulation.

We see this play out all the time on the political stage. Political actors at all levels are often working to solve chronic and dynamic (changing) problems where the possible causes and effects are complicated and often poorly understood.



These high stakes decisions are further clouded as policy-makers tend to see problems from their own ideological frames. Ego is also an issue, as often it becomes about “getting something done” which gives the appearance of victory and progress but actually little really changes, or things may be made worse.

Take the hot-button issue of student testing as an example.

Recently, the Colorado legislature considered a new testing requirement which would have each high school student pass the civics exam used in the naturalized immigration process. Successfully completing this exam would have been a requirement for graduation in the state.



Ostensibly, this new test would have improved the preparedness of high school students to take on their responsibilities as citizens within our democratic republic. One legislator went as far as to say the test was “designed to inspire and engage” students.

Really?

While we collectively dodged a bullet when this well-intended but bumbling proposal failed in the Colorado Senate, I was fascinated by the lack of critical thought that many supporters put forth.

Would this new test really improve citizenship qualities in our students once they became adults? What evidence exists to support such a claim? Was this evidence from sources free of bias or intended manipulation? Were legislators being swayed by patriotic sentiment and personal stories, or were they evaluating scientifically sound evidence? Was the test really “designed to inspire and engage,” or was it a simple task of short-term fact memorization?

For literally decades now, our schools have been run amok with similar proposals which actually were entered into law. Layers of testing were supposed to guarantee equity and uniformly raise quality. Complicated annual performance reviews were supposed to create better teachers and principals. Bonuses and other incentives were supposed to motivate educators to do more for students. Increased school choice and competition was supposed to drive system-wide improvement to education. School ranking websites were supposed to celebrate high performers while shining the white-hot spotlight of accountability on laggards.

Did any of these approaches deliver on their promises? I could give my answers, but then I’d just be contributing to the cacophony of opinions that led us to this place. Instead, these are all questions which should be answered by a skeptical review of scientific evidence.

Political leaders have the extraordinary power of enacting requirements and change which can impact an entire system. In the case of education at a state level, this power literally affects hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of educators.

For the sake of our children and the people working most closely with them, these extraordinary powers should be informed by extraordinary care — and extraordinary evidence.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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