The Complexity of Education

The other day I heard of a fascinating piece of research featured on NPR’s Morning Edition. The show’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reported on a study of Air Force Academy cadets that gives us a little more insight into the phenomenon known as “peer effects,” or how being surrounded by peers of a certain type subtly influences one’s own behavior. Admittedly, the research falls a bit outside of NCTL’s “wheelhouse”, but it, nonetheless, reminded me why I do the work I do.

To summarize the study briefly, the Air Force found that in heterogeneously mixed squadrons (groups with low-, middle-, and high-performing students), the lowest students were more likely to stay enrolled and perform better over time than low-performing students who were in squadrons without a cohort of high-performing students. It seemed, then, that those higher-performing students were having a positive peer effect on the larger group. Armed with this information, the Air Force began to deliberately form squadrons with just high- and low-performing students. After two years, however, the Academy found that lower-performing students actually were doing worse. The peer-effect wasn’t working, researchers realized, because the two types of students tended to fraternize only with similar students, so the low-performing students actually had fairly limited interaction with their higher-performing peers.  The middle-level students had been the “glue” that had catalyzed the peer effect and, without them, the effort to lift those on the lower rungs failed.

So, what does a study about Air Force cadets have to do with NCTL? It is not the specifics of the study that resonate with me, or even the broader issue of peer effects. Rather, this study demonstrates vividly that education is really, really difficult work.  Just when you think you’ve figured out a way to help raise student performance, you encounter another complication that upends that solution.

And this is why at NCTL we are such strong proponents of innovation in schools. There is no one school that has completely “cracked the code” on how to augment student learning, so educators should always be on the lookout for fresh approaches. Having more of the vital resource of time enhances one’s capacity to improve, of course, but success in education really comes down to having the humility to know that the only way to get the teaching and learning process “right” is to appreciate the reality that there is no right answer for every school and for every student.  Instead, the best one can hope for is to always strive to do better.