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?