Education Requires New Diagnoses


Several years ago I painfully introduced my left leg to a very stationary tree while skiing in Quebec. After a long drive back to Ontario and arrival at our local hospital, I smugly informed the physician that I had broken my ankle. Without passing a glance my way, the doctor stated, “Perhaps you might allow me to do the diagnosis?”

An hour later, and with a gentle sense of sarcasm in her voice, my doctor proclaimed – “Well Kent you were close – you severed your Achilles tendon”.

Lesson learned. Let the experts do the diagnosis.

Notwithstanding that one example, it is interesting to note that most of us are wise enough to defer medical diagnoses to health professionals, legal questions to lawyers, dental issues to dentists and construction decisions to qualified carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Yet equally interesting is our apparent comfort in abrogating diagnoses and decisions about education to… well just about anyone!

Beware the Experts

Over the past century and in particular during the last several decades those in the Academy and in the education sector writ large have had to live with many decisions made on our behalf by non-educators. These external influencers include business leaders, politicians, journalists, economists, union leaders and others. Some leaders think so highly of their expertise that they self-brand themselves as the “Education Premier” or some such name.

Many external experts have provided the education sector with a dizzying array of initiatives over the years. Schemes related to curricular and instructional design, application of information communication technologies, remedial techniques for poor-performing schools, evaluation protocols for faculty, testing of students and of course re-organizing and re-engineering our schools to become more effective and more efficient are just some examples.

Beyond the external experts listed above, recently we have seen the re-emergence of the super-wealthy (albeit often sincere) experts. These individuals and foundations have been gaining an increased role in driving change within the education sector.

These experts include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Neeru Khosla’s CK12 Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation among others. It is important to note that some of this work has been very helpful. Further, it is deeply admirable that these groups care so much that they would invest millions into education.

In many ways this is not a new phenomenon. Wealthy philanthropists have long been committed to addressing educational challenges and inequities. Previous wealthy supporters had familiar names such as Kellogg, Ford, Carnegie and perhaps lesser-known but the equally influential Grace Dodge and the Rosenwald Fund.

Recognizing the Good

As a result of these external champions, it is fair to say education has improved in many ways over the years. The Gates Foundation has had early success in improving school completion. Other initiatives such as early childhood education and smaller class sizes in the formative years (K-3 in particular) have also had measurable and positive outcomes. Here in Nova Scotia a forward-looking government has committed to these changes and more within their Education Action Plan.  I suspect in a decade or less we will begin to realize the wisdom of these investments (for another example see research related to Project Star).

However with the many successes have come too many failures and too many fads. Our willingness to march blindly forward to the next new idea too often wastes scarce resources, negatively impacts student learning and demoralizes the dedicated teachers of whom we expect so much. Diane Ravitch suggests we are simply too willing to suspend disbelieve and that too many of us naively “believe in miracles”.

Chasing Miracles

Chasing miracles through fads and fallacies comes with negative consequences. In his book Education Under Siege (2013), Shapiro warns “many of the fads now spreading across our continent are outright frauds, while others are fantasies, even fictions”. He goes on to state educational fads “are undermining our public schools, teachers, kids, and communities not to mention pilfering our tax dollars in the process”.

Over the past three decades I have not been immune to drinking the education snake oil myself.  However over the years I have also come to develop a healthy level of skepticism when it comes to the next new thing. The catchphrase “follow the money” was popularized in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men and it is what now rumbles through my mind every time I hear the next new education solution or product (aka fad) to hit the market.

So What to do?

I am not advocating the status quo. Too many students are slipping through the cracks, dropping out, stopping out, and walking away from their future potential. This is particularly alarming for minority communities and families who could be considered economically poor.  I am confident that education will continue to change.

What I am suggesting is that we must be more attuned to the reality that superficial answers and educational fads are not the answer. The issues we face are more complex. When we wonder why students are not being successful, too often we ignore the realities. That is, the evidence is so clear that students who don’t succeed – schools that perform poorly – districts that are at the bottom of the ranking schemes – are less about a child’s teacher and their school experience and more about the socio-economic reality facing that student.

Yes teachers can improve – every profession can and they are getting better every year. However my view is that education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and we need not be so easily sold the next prescription to treat the alleged illnesses that ail us.

Two Broad Solutions

There are two very broad solutions we might consider.

First, get more serious about the fact that poverty is the underlying issue preventing many students from being successful. What is an example? I might suggest the testing fad that is playing itself out in many jurisdictions. In speaking of the growing mania regarding system testing (or here in Canada we might call it provincial testing) Shapiro is ruthless. He declares system-wide tests simply tell us “what we already know – namely, the socioeconomic levels of the kids in the schools”.

Fundamentally we need to address the poverty in all communities if we are to dramatically improve education.


StFX University (est. 1853) – Antigonish, Nova Scotia

Second, we must listen more carefully to those on the front lines – that is our highly educated teachers and professors and educators who are in our classrooms and schools and colleges and universities (if you want examples of real experts please visit me at StFX and I would be pleased to do the introductions). In this regard, I am reminded of the my medical doctor when she appropriately reminded me who was the physician and who was not.

We must be more cautious in terms of where we spend our scarce resources.  Let us also be more vigilant when seeking answers about education by speaking with those who are experts – the educators.  My hope is that when it comes to addressing challenges in education I look forward to the day when more educators declare “perhaps you might allow me to do the diagnosis?”



About kentmacdonald

President and Vice Chancellor Professor, Faculty of Education St. Francis Xavier University
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