Trusting a flawed system

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

If takes a lot more effort to look at evidence of untrustworthiness and act on that effort than it takes to just go with the flow and have trust. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where people place their trust. As a more or less aware and engaged citizen, I think about trust when I hear the latest sound bite from the outstanding personalities we call our presidential candidates (or their supporters). As someone with a deep interest in education, I think about trust when I hear the fierce defense and protection of schools and systems that, according to data, are failing their students.

One of my favorite websites during election season is the Politifact Truth-O-Meter. I’ve somehow convinced myself that if enough people would just check the Truth-O-Meter, politicians would have to be honest because citizens wouldn’t give their support to the ones whose pants are on fire. Surely the fact that dishonest politicians and schools that don’t actually teach kids manage to hold onto supporters is due to just not knowing the facts, right?

Well not so much, according to this article from Fast Company: Why We Trust People Who Are Clearly Untrustworthy. It turns out that trusting corrupt politicians, or anything untrustworthy, has more to do with hard-wired instincts than with lacking the right data. Essentially, if takes a lot more effort to look at evidence of untrustworthiness and act on that effort than it takes to just go with the flow. Also, if the thing we trust is more or less likeable, then why stop trusting it?

When it comes to the connection between trust, data, and action, the education system looks eerily similar to the presidential campaign. While most people disagree that there are likeable things about the candidate they love to hate, most people can find the likeable things in schools, even the so-called dropout factories and those with appalling academic outcomes. In fact, start making a case against a struggling school, and many people will flip out. An Edufact Truth-O-Meter will not create any kind of collective will to rally for better schools.

It’s discouraging to see systems that perpetuate, even increase, inequity continue to receive trust because nostalgia tells us a story that tradition is better than empowering children. However, considering the top-down nature of education policy in recent history, it is not a surprise that many are more comfortable defending the familiar in face of frequently-shifting priorities.

As the movement to break free from the status quo in order to provide high quality, personalized learning for students advances, building trust has to be a priority in a way that it hasn’t previously been in education policy. As campaign seasons show us year after year, the one who shouts the loudest isn’t necessarily increasing trust, so it’s fair to say that approach probably won’t work in education either. It remains to be seen whether supporters of personalized learning will be able to create change through trust rather than an iron fist, but my hope is for a transformed system based on the collective needs and goals of the communities whose children are a part of the education system.