richard_nisbett's picture
Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Thinking: A Memoir
Psychologist University of Michigan

Dear Mr. President,

American scientific success, as measured for example by the number of Nobel Prize winners who live in the United States, helps to sustain an illusion that the American educational system is fundamentally healthy. This illusion is further aided by the fact that American higher education is rightly the envy of the world. And it is helped along by the fact that most Americans believe that, though there may be serious problems with most U.S. schools, the ones their children go to are an exception. (This is a variant of the same phenomenon that gets people re-elected to Congress: the public has a low opinion of the Congress in general, but people tend to regard their own Representative as an exception.)

You are well aware that math and science education at the secondary and elementary level is substandard in comparison to most of the rest of the developed world. And education at those levels too often fails across the boards to serve minority populations. You have commented on these facts in public. But you sometimes speak as though we knew how to improve education in all respects. The fact is that most of what we know about education—when we know anything at all—is mostly at the level of widely accepted anecdote rather than solid scientific findings. Enough progress has been made in the last 30 years by cognitive psychologists, as well as by developmental and social psychologists, to allow for an avalanche of research on what is effective in education if a serious national effort were to be made.

Generating support for a serious research program would likely be impeded by pessimism on the part of the public. It is distressing how many people assume that little can be done to improve education—especially for minorities. But in fact we have a large number of demonstrations that it is possible for minority students to perform at levels well above the national average—the "Jaime Escalante Effect." Beneficial results for innovations in minority education have been obtained at every level from early elementary school through college. Unfortunately, it is frequently assumed, even by educators, that such results are possible only for charismatic individuals and that they cannot be duplicated by normal people in normal school systems.

Jaime Escalantes may in fact be rare, but there may be ways to help minority children achieve high levels of educational success short of providing each of them with an inspirational teacher. There are already many hints about how to improve teaching of students in general and there are some suggestions that not all students learn in the same way. An example is tentative evidence that minority children are particularly likely to benefit from interacting with computers as opposed to traditional methods of reading books and listening to lectures.

An all-out effort to find both the generalizations about what kinds of education are good in general, and what kinds are most helpful for minority children, would pay back many-fold. The obvious agency to handle this is the Department of Education. You have directed the Department to spend more money on basic research in education. Perhaps that will be effective, despite the very poor record of the department in spending money wisely for research. My recommendation, however, is to establish a special bureau within the National Science Foundation and avoid any situation where traditional educational researchers have a veto over what kind of research gets funded.

Sincerely yours,

Richard E. Nisbett
University of Michigan
Author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently—And Why