Monday, August 30, 2010

Is Ray Fisman one of the best and the brightest?

Based on some of the feedback to my past few posts on Ray Fisman's recent Slate article, there's a point I should probably make explicit: given all available evidence including reliable first-hand accounts, Ray Fisman is an accomplished researcher and a good guy. Furthermore, I am working under the assumption that, like most people in the reform movement, Dr. Fisman is motivated by a deep concern about the state of education and a genuine desire to improve it. (I have also found this a safe assumption when dealing with the vast majority of the teachers Dr. Fisman would fire.)

I have singled out Dr. Fisman not because "Clean Out Your Desk" was exceptionally bad but because it was exceptionally representative. If this were an anomaly written by someone who was stupid or incompetent or had a grudge against teachers, it wouldn't be worth anyone's time to discuss, let alone exhaustively rebut it. This is something more disturbing.

David Warsh has drawn a relevant analogy between the reform movement and the run-up to Vietnam:
Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.
The education reform is filled with smart, well-intentioned people like Ray Fisman. Under the circumstances, that doesn't provide much comfort.

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