12 June 2011

Measurement and the Overpromise

Measurement has its problems.

Listening to the American "Main Stream Media" speak about education today, or reading most of what passes for educational research, is much like waking up too early on a weekend morning and watching infomercials.

There's the "prosperity theology," 'just give two years of your life to Teach for America and God will smile on your CV for all time.' There's "weight loss," 'lose hundreds of pounds of poverty with our KIPP program.' There's "get rich on government money," 'just become a charter school operator!' And then there are dozens of miracle cures for what ails us, the 'Marzano Magic Learning Machine will cure boredom and everybody gets smart.' The 'Slavin Super Reading Pill,' will solve illiteracy. Or the "Harvard Lecture" will make all your students upper class success stories. Or just ridding yourself of unsightly unions will cure all.

And just like those infomercials, anyone with half a functioning brain knows this is all nonsense, and that the peddlers, wearing their wealth (Bill Gates, Eli Broad) or their connections (Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp) or their PhDs (Marzano, Slavin, the entire Harvard Education faculty) like the white coats of hair restoration tonic hucksters, are self-serving phonies. And yet...

"Education Reform" has been very
for Our Miss Broomstick
And yet "we," as a society, are fully suckered in. And the fault lies not just in the work of the evil rich - Gates, Broad, Koch, Bloomberg - but in our very belief in scientific management.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution "we" (the "western" human) have been obsessed with measurement. We measure "production" and "gross domestic product" and "per capita income" and the height, weight, and intelligence of our children, and we compare these against the measurements of others.

Actually, it goes back a bit further, to the Protestant Reformation, and the belief that humans and communities might "measure up" to the perfections described by Calvin and Luther, or not. And to the idea that wealth (responsibly handled) indicated God's love and approval.

The problem with measurement is that it does three very negative things: (1) It creates false comparisons against a fiction - "the average human" and "the average human experience." The child born in the village in rural Kenya is made to line up against Bill Gate's children, on a scale created by Bill Gates. Thus that child is "not white enough," "not Protestant enough," "does not read enough books," and simply lacks "computer time." (2) It ties us firmly to the past - we can only measure against a known, thus measurement itself binds us to prior function and blocks future dreams. The measurer wants a faster horse, he/she cannot conceive of another method of transport. And (3) measurement limits what a society thinks is important. A local bad businessman measures European tax rates against those in the US and insults me by damning European society (no, I won't come back). He focuses on what Americans consider valuable (not supporting their neighbors and children) rather than what Europeans might (supporting their neighbors and children) and thus comes to the set of decisions which put people like Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Snyder in power, which, in turn, probably terminates the American future.

And of course, "measurers" become "fixers." No one "measures up," an idea which has kept preachers employed for 500 years, or 5,000. So the "fix" is needed. "Oh my, I'm not as rich as my neighbor, I need a fix." "Oh my, my child is not as smart as my neighbor's kid, I need a fix." "Oh my, our children do not interpret alphabetical symbols as quickly as those in Scarsdale (on average), we need a fix."

The "fix" is, of course, joined to the overpromise. With so many "fixes" competing for money and attention (and "attention" leads to money), every "Hooked on Phonics" huckster, every aggressive PhD candidate, every professor with dollar signs in his or her eyes, every politician desperate for a CNN or FoxNews soundbite, claims that "their fix" is "the fix" - God has smiled on them and made them the conduit of the perfect truth.

any difference between these two videos? ("fixers" at work)

And each of these fixes limits, and ties us to the past, and preserves the status quo. Dr. Robert Slavin has never spent a minute considering (publicly) what "reading" means. He just wants kids to spend their entire childhood chasing his grandchildren, so his grandchildren stay on top (those other kids cannot possibly catch up unless Bob's grandchildren stop moving forward, since they've begun so far ahead). Bill Gates has never spent a minute considering (publicly) what "education" means. Rather, he sells a system which lists his kids as the 'best in the world' and measures all children by what's going on in that big house outside Seattle.
build your own Bill Gates house, and your kids can grow up to be like his...
Thus, we as a society don't consider how we might re-imagine reading so it is no longer the elite activity of the Gutenberg/Reformation era. We don't consider how we might re-imagine education so it is no longer the industrial process crafted by 19th century Social Darwinists. We don't consider how we might re-design our social structure to eliminate the poverty which destroys opportunity. Instead we run in circles chasing the fictional... that "average" human which does all the things important in the past pretty well.

Measurement has its problems. Measuring ensures that most will be "left behind." Measuring ensures that destructive competition will rule. Measuring blocks truly new ideas. Measuring rates the status quo as the best we can do.

So maybe, just maybe, we should stop doing it.

- Ira Socol


Zack said...

A sharp critique to be sure. It's a shame (perhaps a crime?) that the on-the-ground implications of measurement - standardized testing, and all the accompanying implications and sick incentives (financial, curricular, etc.) serve to preserve the status quo and perpetuate larger societal power structures. That is, Bill's children, by virtue of their power and privilege, have access to all the "extra-curricular" or enrichment activities - essentially everything beyond English and Math - that the average child (read child not of the oligarchs) has lost access to. Three cheers for the permanent serf class!

Bill Genereux said...

If anything needs fixing, it's the editing on that Slavin video. What he's saying is so boring, let's use two cameras so we can continually change shot angles to try to liven things up a bit. Must've been twenty shifts in that 6 minute clip - geez! Maybe the editing is shifty because the subject himself is shifty?