Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where the light is

Repeating a joke:
Late one night, a cop came upon a drunk, on his hands and knees, under a streetlight.

"Hey buddy," the cop asked. "What're you doing?"

"I'm looking for my keys," the drunk replied.

"Where did you lose them?" the cop asked.

"Over there," the drunk replied, pointing down a dark alley.

"Then why are you looking over here?" the cop asked.

"Because this is where the light is."
Ron Huberman, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has made "performance management" a central tenet of his management strategy. The key metric for measuring performance is standardized test scores. Because that is where the light is.

The impulse behind performance management I think generally is okay -- what one does in the world should be based on what one observes and experiences, and not just what one cooks up based on whim. That is the best part of science. Where this falls down is when one starts confusing the observed quantified data for observed reality.

Steve Talbott, whose work I tremendously appreciate, has written quite a bit about the deep hole that a lot of modern scientific practice has fallen into. (A good collection of his writings are available on the From Mechanism to a Science of Qualities page). In "The Vanishing World Machine", Talbott argues that modern science began when people turned away from labyrinthine abstractions along the lines of "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" to observing the world around them. But science, especially of late, has made something of a U-turn.
It's true that we no longer ask, 'How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' but we are certainly entranced with the question, 'How much data can we store on the head of a pin?' And our trance is only deepened when the answer turns out to be: 'a hell of a lot'. What many haven't realized yet is how easily our preoccupation with the invisible constructions on that pinhead blind us to the world we originally set out to perceive and understand in its full material glory.
The world ceases to be the world of dandelions and earthworms and snowflakes and becomes instead a mass of numeric data. Talbott asserts that "our preoccupation with workable mechanisms, far from contradicting our preference for abstract cerebration, is itself a primary symptom of our flight into abstraction and our refusal to see the world." Much of modern science has turned away from the dark alley of the world, back to the sterile streetlight of abstraction.

In modern education, the turning away takes the form of poring over reports of easy-to-process (thanks to computers, etc.) multiple-choice test data. The living child has been replaced with a data shadow. And teachers are pushed into interacting with the shadow, not the child.

Setting aside consideration of the political forces behind the overdrive to privatize education in Chicago, and looking at Huberman's emphasis on performance management from a strictly methodological perspective, I argue that it rests on a broken understanding of science and a disturbed view of the world.

What might be an alternative? I quote from Talbott again, this time from a chapter in his most recent book, Devices of the Soul. Talbott quotes a description of the assessment process at a Camphill community, a network of residential communities for people with special needs.
Every week the staff of a house or entire facility come together to discuss a particular child:

The child's case history is read, and then the teachers, helpers and nurses give their reports and impressions of the child in question. Many symptoms, signs and features are collected until -- usually under the guidance of one of the doctors -- the image of the child arises. His habits, achievements, faults and failures are laid out in such a way that gradually a complete picture of his individuality appears.

In this picture the staff find guidance that enables them to clear a path for the child's continued growth.
Talbott then comments:
The contrast with the mentality behind standardized testing could hardly be greater. Certainly teachers must assess student performance -- and in the most profound and intimate way possible. The problem with standardized testing is that it avoids any such rigorous assessment. It is a hopelessly crude tool, a means of studied ignorance rather than deep understanding. And, as a side effect, it removes all flexibility, the living qualities, from classroom engagement. When you know in advance exactly what knowledge the student-container is supposed to hold, there's not much incentive to attend to the particular gifts and developmental needs, or the consuming interests, of the individual learner. Standardized testing is not student assessment; it is the refusal to assess.
Let me repeat that last sentence: "Standardized testing is not student assessment; it is the refusal to assess."

The keys to making education work aren't under the convenience of multiple choice testing. They are somewhere in the dark alley. Although, when you think about it, it really isn't that dark -- there is no shortage of humane, practical, working strategies to making education work.