Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reform and Engineering Systems

Peter DeWitt ran a column last week on NBC's Education Nation advertising site leaping off from the question of how to chart a course through the middle of this debate. I feel his pain. Education has become another area in US life where it is no longer enough to believe that the people you disagree with are wrong-- you must view them as your mortal enemies, motivated by some combination of evil, greed, and stupidity. "Moderate" doesn't just mean a central position on the issues, but also refers to the degree of heat one brings to the argument table.

After some thoughts that you really should go read, DeWitt arrives at this:

 If we stop debating on who is right or wrong and actually work together to figure out how to move forward, we may find that our end goals are the same, and only our means are different. Perhaps I’m too idealistic. 

And that got me thinking, not for the first time, about the different goals in play in education reform and reclamation these days.

I think of myself as a moderate. I don't see any value in having national education standards, of any sort, at all, ever. But I do understand why some people think such standards have merit, and I don't assume that they are horrible people.

But I am afraid, despite DeWitt's hopes, we don't all have the same goals. I'm not talking about the profiteers. Lightyears of words have been strung together to tell that story, and I'm not going to address to that today. I think something else is driving the architects of school reform, and I think that explains, even more than greed, why we're pulling in different directions.

I've lived most of my life around engineers and their modern offspring, computer systems guys (as an English teacher, I'm a bit of an anomaly). And here are two things I know about folks in those fields:

1) They love neat, pretty systems.

2) Human beings often fail to behave the way they think human beings ought to behave.

Point #1 is important to understand. Engineers like elegant systems. Whatever it is-- stereo equipment, a way to move dirt in the back yard, a system for remote access a particular program-- they love to design a smooth, elegant means of accomplishing it. That is the goal. Given the choice between a sloppy cobbled-together system that gets the job done and a sleek elegant system that doesn't-- but should --they will pick the elegant non-functional system every time.

Who has not had this conversation with their tech department?

Teacher: This hardware/software you set up isn't parsing the widgets for me.

Tech guy: Really? That should work. [accusing tone] Are you sure you didn't mess up the fribulator?

Teacher: Didn't touch it. This thing doesn't work. Can you just do a workaround so I can finish

Tech guy: No no no. This should work. [followed by hunching over equipment having prolonged conversation with himself]

Three weeks later the tech guy is still trying to tweak the setup. Meanwhile, you've parsed your widgets with a pencil and some 3x5 notecards. File this with all the times you were going to use that cool hookup in your class and 95% of the period was wasted with tech guys trying to get things to work the way they were supposed to.

I don't know Bill Gates, but given my experience with engineers and computer guys, I wonder-- does he want to rule the world and make money from it, or does he just want to organize. I wonder if he and other engineery types don't look at our traditional education system and see a system that is so higgledy-piggledy, haphazard, random, and messy that it gives them hives.

I think it's possible they just want to see a smooth, elegant system.

Do they care about results or students or teachers or communities? Probably, but their core belief is this: if you get the proper system in place, the results will take care of themselves.

So if it seems as if the architects are talking about teachers and students and schools as if we're all just cogs in some big shiny machine-- well, yes. To them, we are. And as soon as the machine is properly tweaked and aligned and calibrated and set-up, we will all be whirring along, happy, productive cogs who are getting everything we ever wanted.

They're wrong. Human beings don't operate well as cogs, and system perfection is largely inachieveable. The day will never come when every single student will successfully take Smarter Balance test online in one day without a glitch. "But it should happen." And rather than bust out paper and pencil and do what works, the engineers will keep striving for perfection. And because our goal is to perfect the system, it doesn't matter if the clock is still running and years are wasted for the students while the machine is set up.

In the meantime, engineers see humans in the education system as functions-- teachers are Content Delivery Specialists and students are Data Generation Units. And all functions must be standardized to certain tolerances in order for the system to run smoothly. Worst case, engineers can see humans as a problem. By refusing to behave the way they ought to, humans will keep messing the system up. Either those cogs must be brought into compliance or replaced with other cogs that do what they're supposed to. For the good of the system.

So no, Dr. DeWitt, in the end I don't think we want the same things, and the differences in what we want end up being rather critical. In the best of times, when the system is running smoothly and the students are prospering, there's no conflict. But when crisis time comes (or is created artificially), and we have to decide where to focus our dwindling resources, it makes a critical difference whether our imperative is "Save the kids" or "Save the system."

I don't think the engineers are malevolent (though I think some profiteers are using them to break trail). But I don't think they get it. And I'm not sure how to help them get it, because the other obstacle to dialogue here is a power differential. The architects aren't speaking to us, and they don't have to. At least, not yet. I don't think it's hopeless-- I know several engineery types who get along quite well with other carbon-based life forms, so I know it's possible. So in the respect at least, Dr. DeWitt, I share your idealism.

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