Fighting My Cognitive Bias

Yesterday I attended a policy event put on by the Hamilton Project about getting our economy back on track.  To my surprise, one of the panelists was Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who spearheaded the study on financial incentives in DC and three other major cities.  According to the event organizers, the implications of Dr. Fryer's study (that paying kids to read and act right leads to increased achievement) should be part of an overall strategy to ensure a high functioning economy in the coming years.

Upon discovering that Dr. Fryer would be speaking at the event, I found myself feeling hostile toward him.  My experiences have suggested that his motives for conducting the study, the findings, and his suggested implications are suspect.  I've heard from colleagues that the Capital Gains program had no effect on their students.  I noticed Dr. Fryer first released his findings to Amanda Ripley and TIME magazine.  Also, I remember that Ripley was the same journalist who did that TFA promo article in The Atlantic back in January that so painfully lacked the insight of a professional educator.

I caught myself shaking my head and grimacing during his presentation.  But at that point, I stopped myself.  Deep down I know that honest dialogue must involve a willingness to listen to viewpoints that contradict my biases.  And at that moment, I was not willing to learn anything from Dr. Fryer.  His presentation was literally causing me mental anguish because of all the feelings I associate with people I assume (correctly or incorrectly) are using education as a means of advancing their political aspirations or general prestige rather than contributing anything of substance to the field.

So I stopped myself.  And as hard as it was, I took a few minutes to pry open the part of my mind that had closed itself off to Dr. Fryer's presentation.  I forced myself to at least consider what he was saying.  And I found myself pleased that he suggested that his findings were a first step in what he hopes will be more studies in the nuances of incentives for students.  And when the moderator prompted him to suggest that paying students could be a possible solution to some of public education's ills, he refused.  He said more work needed to be done before he could draw that conclusion.  I doubt I would have heard any of this had I been unable to open my mind a little.

After the event was over, I was leaving the hotel where it had been held when I saw someone who I recognized.  It took me a while to realize it was David Brooks, the New York Times columnist.  When I got home and Googled him to ensure that it was indeed him, I coincidentally found an article he'd written almost exactly about what I was experiencing during Fryer's presentation, except Brooks's article was about whether people choose to overcome their cognitive biases when they make choices about media they consume online.  It's worth reading if you're at all interested.

I think the lesson here is that bias can be extraordinarily influential in the development of our beliefs.  When we cling to bias while another point of view is being expressed, it can literally be a painful experience.  If we allow our previous experiences (no matter how valid they may be nor how often we see their lessons reconfirmed) to stop us from considering alternative points of view, odds are that we will cease to develop, or at least develop much more slowly.  I think this is especially true for beliefs that we feel passionate about or areas that we fancy ourselves as experts in.  I like to pretend that I know a little something about education, but every time I attend a policy event on education in DC, I find myself sitting in a room full of people who both know vastly more about the subject and have decades more experience than I do.  It's a humbling experience and it's forcing me to rethink my basic understandings over and over and over again.  While this is exhausting, I believe it's also led to some big breakthroughs in my understanding of some things.

So lately I've been trying to consider new ideas (especially those that seem distasteful) dispassionately.  I'm reminding myself that not only do I not know everything, but I in fact know almost nothing about this grand field.  I'm always finding that ideas that I thought were mine have actually been around for thousands of years.  And the result is that I engage others with far more questions than answers, because it's become quite clear to me that I have almost none of the latter.


  1. Good for you! I remember going through the same process when I was a young teacher. It's called "maturity" and will allow you to reap the great benefits of both experience and an open mind.

  2. I am not a teacher, but I am interested in the young professor's study. Have read a lot about it and some of the material he deigned to be released. He won't even reveal which DC schools were involved, but those who live here have pretty much connected the dots. The results are modest, to say the least and suggestive of very little. Bu if there is any validity to his concept, it must be associated in terms of cognition with the very same idea for teachers (yes, teachers). Why not pay them extra for, er, teaching(!), er...learning (!) or even improving (!!!)?? Oh, not a new idea, eh? The teachers here in Washington, who get paid way above average, want even more money, but the ones I meet and read seem to have a real aversion to being evaluated and measured. As for your first commenter, I have read her posts elsewhere. She is very knowledgeable, and getting rather famous for saying: change in DC schools is going to be "very expensive and take a long time." Understatement.

  3. Thanks for the comment Anon at 243. I agree that it would be nice to pay excellent teachers more for a job well done. What I think most people who attempt to do that find, however, is that effectively isolating the effect of a teacher is not yet possible. I have no problem being evaluated. I welcome it. My frustrations have been that in DCPS teachers are often evaluated by people who know very little about teaching. Many of the administrators responsible for evaluation came out of programs like TFA and New Leaders for New Schools. They spent two years in the classroom and then moved on to tell people who've been teaching in urban environments for 10+ years how to do their jobs. You don't learn to be a good teacher in 2 years.
    I'd prefer a system of constant peer evaluation in addition to administrative evaluation.

    I can see why someone on the outside like yourself might interpret what I'm saying as a desire to not be held accountable, but I can assure you that I (and millions of teachers like me) are not seeking to avoid accountability - although I acknowledge there are definitely some who are. We're just concerned that when you make decisions about our pay and our job security based on measures that do not reliable reflect our quality, you disrespect our profession and lessen its ability to attract and retain quality people.

    For a more in-depth look at this problem, please visit David Cohen's "Do you understand" series:

  4. Thanks for your reply to my 243 post. As short as it was, I learned something and try to each day as I explore DC public education. I feel like a person from Mars, though, and unwanted in some cases. Many self-identified or likely DC teachers on blogs seem to react negatively to "outsiders" of various kinds. There is a genre of DC teacher (any teacher?) who believes you can't possibly understand education unless you have been "in my shoes." That's largely, but not fully, BS, as you know, and I agree good teachers are not made in two or three (Rhee) years. (Of course, Ms. Rhee had no intention of being a career teacher). Studies show--from our best schools of ed. (oxymoron?)--however, that more years of teacher experience and degrees in ed. have no statistical bearing on student accomplishment or satisfaction. And here in DC they have a track record of many years of mismanaging various aspects of public education. But I digress....Thanks for running this blog.

  5. Thanks again, Anon. We're all stakeholders in public education, and we certainly all have a right to an opinion.

    I have heard about these studies that can show no correlation between experience and student achievement. But I've also heard of studies that do show experience has a positive impact. Additionally, I've heard of studies that show experience is worth something up until you've been teaching for three years, after which it becomes less important.

    I tend to think that if you took a group of highly enthusiastic, dedicated, and reflective individuals who wanted to teach for their whole lives, and studied their impact on students over their career, you would see extremely high returns on experiences in the early years, and continued (although likely diminished) returns in subsequent years.

    I would say, from my brief experience teaching, that I have become SIGNIFICANTLY better at what I do year after year. The problem with a lot of those studies (I think) is that they're largely based on standardized test scores. And there is SO MUCH MORE to teaching than how students do on a test. Teaching is, in a sense, a science. But I think it's much more an art. Learning to navigate the subtleties of teaching takes lots of time, and that's why I expect time to continue to improve my practice.

    Also, on the subject of schools of ed - one thing I've been realizing lately is just how poorly our schools of education prepare teachers, largely because we've only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what makes for great teaching. Our society's research in the area of effective pedagogy and effective teacher training programs is so far behind many other disciplines. For evidence of that, see:


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