Monday, June 23, 2014

Behaving As Expected

"You just didn't react the way you were supposed to."

This is another thread that runs through support of the CCSS complex. There's nothing wrong with the policy or program; people just didn't react the way they were supposed to.

For instance, Anne Hyslop over at Real Clear Education, called concern over test-and-punish a "state of mind, not state of reality." Policy is not responsible for the death of support-and-improve, she says. Her argument is two-fold.

First, there are some accountability policies out there, but they don't really kick in for a couple of years, so what's the big deal. Also, when your spouse has filed for divorce, but the divorce isn't actually final yet, your whole family should be able to have a perfectly fine Thanksgiving dinner together.

Here's a fairly predictable set of school system behaviors (at least, fairly predictable for anyone who works in a school system). If you tell schools that everybody on their staff will have to clear a five-foot hurdle in three years, they will start making staff jump this afternoon.

Which brings us to Hyslop's second point. "What is incompatible with the support-and-improve mindset is the choices of some elected officials, school administrators, and educators." The policy is great. It's fine. It's just that all the human beings who are involved in implementing it are doing it wrong.

This refusal to behave as expected is frequently frustrating to reformsters, particularly systems fans. They set up this really cool system and, in their heads, people are going to respond to the system in a particular way. And then those damn actual real live human beings insist on NOT doing what they are supposed to.

I believe there are reformsters who really, truly think that the new generation of standardized tests will end test prep, and the students and teachers will respond to these new tests by plunging into rich curriculum materials and getting their critical thinking on. But by allowing high stakes (from third grade promotion to keeping a school open) to be attached to the tests, they have absolutely guaranteed that schools will give renewed focus and devotion to test prep.

The irony here is that teachers understand this problem all too well. There's not a teacher alive who doesn't remember planning a lesson on the assumption that students would react in a particular way and realizing (sometimes with disappointment, sometimes with horror) that they aren't going to react that way at all ("When I did my marshmallow gun unit, I was sure they'd be fascinated by shooting at my wacky targets and not each other's heads"). And what do all good teachers learn from that experience?

When you fail to anticipate how live human beings are going to react to your program, that is a failure of you and your program, not of those human beings.

Why do policy makers and big thinkers keep making this sort of mistake? Too little interaction with live human beings. Too little personal field testing of their ideas. Way way wayyyyyy too insulated in situations where other humans behave as expected because they are the boss (is there anything sadder than the former business exec-turned-guest teacher who thinks that since all his employees hang on his every word, so will a room full of fifteen year olds?)

But make this mistake they do. This is not how people were supposed to react to the standards. This is not how states are supposed to implement the testing. This is not how teachers are supposed to react to the evaluation systems. Reformsters can take heart in that this is not just an education policy problem ("US troops will be greeted as liberators").

But if your defense of your program is that people aren't reacting to it correctly, your program is indefensible. That great teacher of physics, Julius Sumner Miller, used to always say, "We must not say the experiment has failed. Rather, we have failed to meet the requirements of nature." If your policy and programs are great in every way-- except when being implemented by actual human beings-- your policy and programs have failed to meet the requirements of nature. They are no good, and they belong on the ash heap of history with communism and free love.

When people fail to behave as expected, the problem is not with their behavior. It's with your expectations.


  1. Isn't this a problem of all meritocracies?