John King, the Common Core and cognitive bias

John KingIt’s pretty clear that New York State Commission of Education John King is one of the nation’s top advocates for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

It’s also becoming increasingly apparent that he may be doing more to undermine the implementation of the Common Core than he is doing to support it. For example, his approval of cut points on the 2013 assessments that resulted in the vast majority of the state’s grade 3 — 8 students to be deemed failing has created a firestorm of criticism, galvanized his critics in New York and stalled the implementation of the Common Core in some other states.

Commissioner King is clearly a very smart man. Why might he take actions that do not support what he is trying to achieve? A search for cognitive biases and fallacies may provide some insight. There are a number to consider. King’s positive assessment of New York’s Common Core implementation despite mounting evidence of serious problems suggests optimism bias. His reference to a few, narrow data sets to defend his policies points to confirmation bias. However, two others seem to be at the the root of his troubles.

Certainty bias

Virtually every stakeholder group in the state has some objection to the implementation of the Common Core. The list is long: the pace of implementation, its cost, the lack of teacher training, limited Common Core-aligned curriculum, insufficient resources, poor communication to parents and the deleterious impact on students. Yet whenever asked to address these concerns, Commissioner King responds with unequivocal certainty that he is leading the K-12 education system on exactly the right path.

According to neurologist Robert Burton, certainty bias is “believing you are right even when you’re not.” In a Scientific American interview, he discusses the pitfalls of this “potentially dangerous mental flaw”: “We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions.” In the absence of empirical testing and evidence, Burton advises, “we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.” He concludes, “Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.”

Burton’s insights suggest that as long as Commissioner King remains absolutely certain that he is on the right path, he will also demonstrate closed-mindedness, mental rigidity, and an unwillingness to explore alternative paths forward.

The sunk cost fallacy

Commissioner King has invested enormously in the implementation of the Common Core. There are, of course, the billions of dollars of state and federal resources. But he has also staked his personal and professional reputation. And as we all know, the greater the investment in a course of action, the harder it is to write off. We continue to justify that effort.

According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, “The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available, is known as the sunk-cost fallacy, a costly mistake that is observed in decisions large and small.” The sunk-cost fallacy prevents us from cutting our losses when we should. The trick, says Kahneman, is to avoid “the escalation of commitment to failing endeavors” and to “ignore the sunk costs of past investments when evaluating current opportunities.”

Many of New York’s most powerful stakeholders do not object to the need to implement the Common Core; they just object to how it is being done. In fact, they are reaching out to Commissioner King with pragmatic alternatives. The New York State Council of School Superintendents, for example, has proposed a comprehensive plan to move forward with implementation of the Common Core.

Will Commissioner King be able to avoid the “escalation of commitment to failing endeavors” and evaluate the new opportunities being put on to the table? Recent remarks suggests otherwise. At a public forum in Long Island, he told Newsday, “Now is not the moment for a delay.”

Biases muddle our thinking and prevent us from seeing clearly. For example, in his fervor to stay a certain course, Commissioner King has not acknowledged the risks associated with his implementation of the Common Core. Here’s just one: Of the approximately one million children who have been tested by New York’s new assessments, nearly 70% are failing. What are the unintended consequences for those 700,000 failing students? You cannot answer that question unless you first ask it. And you can only ask the question if you are open to it. Blind to risk, the Commissioner is incapable of managing risk.

Freeing the mind from bias and fallacy

How does one overcome cognitive bias, root out fallacies? Ironically, the Commissioner could turn to New York’s own “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards.” The grade 11 and 12 speaking and listening standard asks students to “propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.” (CC.SL.CCR.1.c)

Probing reasoning, exploring a full range of positions, challenging conclusions and promoting divergent and creative perspectives — none of these skills are in evidence where certainty bias and the sunk cost fallacy have a firm hold of the decision-maker. Commissioner King would do well to model the standards that he is implementing.

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