Science-iness

I think often these days of Wilhelm Fleiss.  Who doesn’t? you’re probably asking, but in case you don’t remember: in the 19th century, while Freud was developing the theory of psychoanalysis, his friend Wilhelm Fleiss dismissed Freud’s talk therapy as a lot of windy hoo-ha.  Why sit around listening to people blather about memories, dreams and feelings? Fleiss’ cure for neurosis was swift and conclusive: stick a hot piece of metal up a patient’s nose and cauterize the connection to the brain.

As you can imagine, this technique was not very successful, which is why you never worry about making a Fleissian slip unless you are running around with a piece of red-hot metal, in which case you have much, much bigger problems to worry about.  But for years, before Fleiss destroyed a patient’s nose, causing half of her face to cave in (she later sued him, then became a psychoanalyst), Fleiss’ technique was held in high regard.  Why?  Because it felt so scientific.

Obviously, in retrospect, it was not remotely scientific, since it never worked (though it may have seemed to work in the short term; who could continue to obsess about their emotional problems while in such excruciating nose pain? To be fair, I suspect that his other cure, “cocainizing” the nose, may have been remarkably effective, at least until the buzz wore off or your money ran out.)  But Fleiss’ cure had the trappings of science: the metal instruments, the procedures, the insistence on physical, observable things like body organs.  It makes me think of Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness” for ideas that feel true even though they’re not.  Fleiss’ technique may not have been scientific, but it had “science-iness.” And that was close enough, at least until the lawsuit kicked in.

I think of “science-iness” every time I hear people refer to our students’ future success or failure as “outcomes.”  Students’ futures are not “outcomes.”  Our students are living, breathing, emotion-driven human beings who carry a lifetime of memories into the classroom; they face a future we cannot imagine but are nonetheless trying to prepare them for.  Thinking of our students as “outcomes” diminishes them to a narrow set of tasks performed at a single test date in March.  Is that really why we’re educating kids?  Or do we educate them because we want them to think clearly, graduate from college, get a good job, have an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  I know that’s not science-y.   But the fact that we crave a simplistic view of life does not mean that life will conform to that desire.  Reducing our students’ futures to the narrow idea of “outcomes” distorts our perception of education, incentivizing short-term, easily-quantifiable results and diverting resources from the meaningful and complex work we need to do.

I think of “science-iness” every time I hear someone offer test scores as proof that a school or a teaching technique is excellent.  It’s extremely impressive that many high-performing schools in underserved communities have been able to produce such gains in test scores.  But it must be noted that those test scores do not correlate with college graduation rates, which remain very low among low-income students of color.  At the same time, a recent MIT study offers compelling evidence that “educational practices designed to raise knowledge and boost test scores do not improve fluid intelligence,” in other words, the ability to think and reason.   Right now we’re pouring billions into developing Common Core tests that will supposedly measure critical reading, writing and thinking—even though no one I’ve talked to thinks the tests are very good, and the last decade of test-driven education is widely considered to have been a disaster.  Why are we doubling down on standardized test-driven education, a strategy that has failed us for over a decade?  Because it feels so science-y?

I think of “science-iness” whenever someone tells me we need an objective measurement of teacher effectiveness, which is why in addition to test scores, rubric-based teacher evaluations are considered by many to be a big step up: with a rubric in hand, administrators will supposedly not be able to pursue vendettas or reward their cronies.  Meanwhile, two teachers have told me of administrators who gave them excellent evaluations without doing the actual observation.  Another teacher I know was given a horrible evaluation on a classroom observation the day after she disagreed with her principal in a meeting; he picked on tiny technicalities and put her on an improvement plan.

I’m not arguing against classroom observations or evaluations.  But we need to accept that these observations and evaluations are never going to be scientifically objective as long as there are breathing, emotional human beings on both the giving and the receiving end.  If the problem is that many principals are marginally competent—something I hear all too frequently—then the fact that we seem to have no idea how to locate and retain good principals is what we need to work on, no matter how un-science-y it may seem.  And we need a more flexible way for good principals and administrators to have constructive conversations with teachers, who are different individuals teaching different subjects in different contexts for different reasons.

While we are pouring resources into these science-y distractions, there are some tragic realities we cannot ignore.  Child poverty in this country is the second highest in the developed world.  After a decade or more of educational reform, we still haven’t moved the dial on the achievement gap between low-income students of color and students from more privileged communities.  Not coincidentally, those low-income students continue to be concentrated in schools that in California are given a third as much per student as schools in wealthier communities.

The educational reform movement has demanded accountability.  I agree.  So in the name of accountability, let’s acknowledge that we are all accountable for the desperate economic inequality in this country, which continues to grow.  We’re accountable for relying on science-y solutions that comfort us by telling us that kids in poverty don’t really need more resources as long as they have a teacher willing to work 90 hours a week until he burns out, regardless of how many kids we pack into his classroom, even if we don’t give him books or even paper, something I’ve seen in all too many classrooms.  We’re accountable for pouring billions into for-profit testing companies that churn out junk science long after it’s clear that those science-y outcomes aren’t helping our kids.

So what do we do?  Well, we do have some actual data, longitudinal studies by the Organization for Economic Cooparation and Development.  Here’s what high-performing countries do: first of all, they recruit and retain excellent teachers by giving them professional working conditions in which they might actually do a good job, with time during the school day to collaborate, plan and learn.  Teachers in countries with successful educational systems do not face rubric-based evaluations; they are not judged or paid based on their students’ test scores.  Instead of being held accountable instantly for science-y outcomes, they’re given the resources they need to be successful.  High-performing countries do not channel their resources disproportionately into wealthy communities.  Instead, they spend tax money according to the students’ needs, like smaller class size in underserved communities and wraparound services for families in poverty.  High-performing countries have universal preschool.  If you’re reaching for your wallet and saying we can’t afford all this, remember what these countries don’t do: they don’t pour billions into standardized testing.

These steps are not science-y.  But we now know that they have a track record of success all over the world.  Why don’t we try them out?  Isn’t that what some people might call…science?

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5 thoughts on “Science-iness”

  1. Hmm. Sorry but I think you are just setting up straw men. Either we measure success and failure in education or we don’t. If we don’t, well, ok. But if we do, then we have to define success and define failure and come up with ways to measure, ahem, outcomes. Test scores are not a perfect measure but such is an integral part of any attempt to evaluate education. And yes, yes, one of the main purposes of such an evaluation is to redistribute wealth and resources and people more equitably, so that all students have access to equal opportunity.

    (A quick digression on the word “outcomes.” Sorry, I think you are using a quibble over a word as an excuse to toss out a simple, essential concept, that of evaluation. Sure, words matter. But not that much, here. Why do constantly use the word “educate” instead of “teach”? In your posts they are interchangeable. But “educate” seems more appropriate somehow. Lends heft, credence, authority in ways that “teach” does not? Well, ditto with “outcomes.” Its a little pompous and silicon-valley-jargon-y for sure, but its better than say, “results”? Whatever. One way or another we need to evaluate education. If not “outcomes” then what?)

    In any case, I think almost all observers of modern USA education, and particularly those who are rending their garments in agony (not you Ellie, I love your evenhanded approach) seem to overlook what I think is the simplest most obvious reason why USA education is in turmoil: we require our kids to spend a lot less time in school than almost all other advanced countries, and we have become allergic to ideas like core curriculum built on common cultural notions.

    First the latter. At some point in the 1960s we decided the “melting pot” was not only an unuseful metaphor for our society, but a harmful one. Smacked too much of rigidity, conformity. Maybe even bigotry. So we got enlightened, and moved to a “tossed salad” metaphor. Ah, yes. Where everyone is “free to be you and me”. How fantastic! Not. The result has been a degradation of the ties that bind. And that shows up big time in public education, where world history is considered core but US history is not. Where self-esteem is a huge priority but selflessness is not. I have a close friend who sends his kid to one West L.A. finest most pretigious private schools. He describes it thusly: “Its a fantastic school. I just wish they taight reading writing and math.”

    No amount of soul searching can move us around this change, I fear. At the risk of offending some people, I think we have to go back to believing that ideas in The Federalist papers, and the creation of the Constitution, and Federal Bank and the nationalization of the colonies debts (arguably the act by Geo washington that truly created the U in the USA) is much more important to learn than the life of Malcolm X. Or the genocide of Native Americans or the Holocaust. Its not a zero sum game – we can teach it all. But our priorities are wayyyyy out of whack, in my opinion – if our goal is to create a well educated population of young people who want to succeed in the USA, and in the world. Historically we have always debated what should go inschool textbooks, and we always will. But for the last 50 or so years, in our earnest and loving quest to right some historical wrongs, we have thrown the baby out with…

    Ok, finally, the issue of time in school. With all the reporting of the recent brouhaha over the PISA results, no one, it seems is focusing on the truly amazing difference between the USA and other countries — we send our kids to school a helluva lot less. case in point: kids in Shanghai are required to go to school 230 days a year. USA? 180 days a year. DUH! And we wonder why Shanghai kids crush us in scores? WTF! Between grade one and grade 12, Shanghai kids have gone to school 600 days of school more than USA kids! Thats two years — and, wonder of wonders, in the PUSA scores the Shanghai kids score about 2 years ahead of USA kids.

    Duh.

    That creaking sound you hear is me climbing down off my soapbox. 🙂

    1. First of all, so glad you’re back and commenting! It’s always refreshing to hear your point of view. I have no objection to measuring success and failure in education. The problem is that because the task is so complex, we have not bothered to define the terms clearly, settling instead for quick and “science-y” answers. I heartily agree that kids need to learn stuff, not just feel good about themselves. The problem, again, is that any instrument we develop to measure that learning has thus far been extremely expensive and gravely flawed. Ten years of state-driven tests measuring skills and information have caused college professors to complain that their students cannot think clearly.
      Shanghai students do seem to spend more time in school–and I think American kids should spend more time in school, too. But many high-performing countries don’t have kids in school more (in some countries, they attend even less than here), so results are mixed, and since this is a very expensive measure, taxpayers tend to resist it. But I’m with you on this one–I think kids who come in way behind grade level should be in school all year, and through the late afternoon to make up for lost time.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the article. I remember my moment in high school when I became inspired by a teacher who challenged us mentally and treated us like adults. It was a watershed moment for me, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a blip on a teacher evalutation form.

    To Mr. Kane,
    Having lived a full year in Shanghai and having spent 4 years at university studying China and Mandarin, I feel you have made some assumptions in your comparison and are leaving out some important factors. Correlation is not causation; although the Chinese do spend more time in school it does not fully explain why Shanghai is ranked first on the list.

    First and foremost, China’s wealth distribution varies greatly from the USA. In China, although wealth is concentrated in urban/suburban areas like the US, they have a particularly skewed system where the vast majority of the country’s wealthy live in “Tier 1” cities – Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. This is partly leftover from their state-run economy days and their transition to capitalism, which disproportionately concentrated wealth in these areas. Furthermore, many of the poor in Shanghai are migrants who do not bring their children to benefit from Shanghai’s school system due to the Hukou (population registration) system. If they do bring them, they do so illegally, and the children can’t benefit from the public school system there.

    China circumnavigated the PISA standards, which account for nationwide education, by dividing their nation up into its Tier 1 cities and the rest of country. It is not a true represenation of their national education performance. I’m sure if America separated its top 3 richest communities, they would rank much higher on the list. However, that would be engaging in “truthiness”, and would allow us to ignore the problems affecting our education system.

    Their system embraces route learning and standardized testing, which is particularly well suited for the memorization of tens of thousands of characters, but leaves many students inadequatey taught in soft skills and the humanities.

    Just food for thought.

    1. Bai en, thank you for commenting! I’m fascinated by Shanghai and have recently read rumors of corruption in their PISA test results. However you slice it, this reinforces my point that even supposedly objective measures like testing are both corruptible and ultimately subjective.

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