Friday, April 18, 2014

What about Palloohkaville?

(Part 3 of 3: Part 1 and Part 2 are not required reading, but it all sort of fits together)

When we talk about the need for standardization, we inevitably come back to the issue of bad schools.

"If we don't have educational standards and high-stakes test accountability," goes the argument, "then over in Palloohkaville they'll be teaching about the flat earth and Jesus riding dinosaurs and how America is really a fascist country and that 2+2 equals Dog. And the Palloohkaville school board will keep denying necessary resources to Other Peoples' Children High School. We need standards and stakes to force them to Do the Right Thing."

I agree that all of these problems are real and serious problems. I just don't agree that standards will do anything to fix them.

Some are fixed by law. Equitable distribution of resources doesn't require Common Core or ed reform-- it requires enforcement of the laws that say "Thou shalt not screw over one set of citizens to the benefit of other sets of citizens." When some school is falling down around the students' ears, the problem is not educational standards-- it's the political will to Do Right. 

For human beings, standards have one function-- to get other people to act as if they share your values. Most classroom teachers, for example, have rules that boil down to "You may not respect and care about every other person in this room, but you will by God at least act as if you do."

Standards for human behavior work better in the negative than in the positive, and better for behavior than for attitude. Our most successful human standards, right back to the Ten Really Famous Ones, have been Thou Shalt Not Do's. School Reformy types have taken to comparing the implementation of their regime to the Civil Rights Movement, and that movement had its greatest success in imposing a standard that said you can't treat non-white folks as if they are lesser beings than you. It has had less success in imposing a standard that says you must treat all non-white people as if they are your friend (and be happy that a Black man was elected President). It is easier to make people stop doing bad things than to make them start to feel like doing good things. And it is particularly difficult to enforce rules that they think and feel certain ways.

So to the extent that educational standards want to impose positive behaviors and attitudes on young people, they are doomed to failure. To the extent that they want to impose positive behaviors on institutions, they are hopeless, because the best you can ever hope for is "going through the motions" and "going through the motions" is not an education.

We know what happens when you give people a punitive bad test-- they learn how to go through the motions that the test requires. That's it.

So what happens if we impose standards on Palloohkaville?

We already kind of know. We've been trying to force districts to drop creationism and teach actual science. What happens is they fight the rules, ignore the rules, and escape the rules. In extreme cases, they commandeer the rules (one of the great fallacies of those who believe in centralized standards is the believe that such centralized control will always stay in the hands of The Right People).

But I will bet you dollars to donuts that we can't find one person who was talked out of creationism and into the scientific view because their high school science teacher was required to teach one and not the other.

Using rules to force people to Get With the Program doesn't work. And it does worse than not work, because when you hand out mental handcuffs and tell everyone they have to slap the cuffs on, the people who will comply are the people who are already with the program-- the people you didn't intend the rules for in the first place. Meanwhile, the people who you really intended the braincuffs for have already figured out how to get around your rule. You didn't stop your bad actors, but you did hamstring your best and brightest.

What happens if we don't impose standards on Palloohkaville?

Palloohkaville becomes known for lousy schools. People don't move there. People don't locate their businesses there. Maybe they raise the will to do something about it; maybe they just change their name to "Mississippi" and decide they're happy with the barrel-bottom view. I'm okay with that. This is America, and the people who should get to decide the fate of Pallohkaville are the Palloohkavillians, who, as it turns out, are the same people who have to live with the consequences of their choices and attitudes. Maybe after they have to live out their values, some folks have an epiphany and say, "Hey, I think maybe education is actually important."

Here's the thing-- I don't believe anybody can step in from outside and apply force in a way that will fix any of that. Sure, you can force them to go through some education-ish movements, but what will that actually change?

You cannot improve a community from outside that community. It is one of the bitterest social and political ironies ever that you can, in fact, wreck a community from outside that community, but you cannot fix it from outside. Every successful model of community uplift ever involves being part of the community. If you want to fix Palloohkaville Schools, you will have to live there (and probably for more than two years). Drive-by do-gooders don't help, and there's a name for the business of moving into an area and forcing the locals to do as you say, for their own good-- it's colonialism.

Outside fixing only diverts attention. Instead of worrying about local school problems, we're worrying about That Damn Federal Test. Our schools don't have a problem, the new mantra goes-- we're just being crushed by a big gummint thumb.

It frustrates me too, that so many Americans don't really value education, but you don't make people value education through centralized standards any more than you make them love hamburgers by turning every restaurant into a McDonalds.

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