Sunday, February 15, 2015

Looking for Good

One of my recent posts here led to an extended outbreak of good conversation in the comments section. There were several good points made, but one in particular prompted me to think, and now that I've had a bagel that tasted pretty good and am enjoying the view of a good-looking day out my window, I'm going unwind some thoughts.

I was arguing against the necessity of having standardized tests in order to tell parents whether their children were getting a good education. I wrote:

Do I need to compare my performance as a husband to that of other husbands to know whether I have a good marriage or not, or can my wife and I depend on our own judgment of our own circumstances. Every student should get a good education, and that means something different in every situation. Comparison has nothing to do with it.

The author of the piece to which I was responding, Christine Duncan Evans, responded with this:

Most wife beaters will say that they have pretty good marriages too. I’m not saying you’re a wife beater, but I’m saying that not all definitions of ‘good’ – in marriage and in education – are equally valid. (I’ve met history teachers who argue that using the textbook as their only instructional resource is ‘good’ history teaching.) If you’re going to disagree with someone about what constitutes ‘good’ you need a common definition of what ‘good’ is so that you can compare that marriage/education to the common definition.

It's a good point. I've written before about how hard it is to measure merit and how it's much harder than we think to settle on what it means to be an educated person, but Evans is correct to note that not all definitions of "good" are equally good. So how do we distinguish between the good good and the not-so-good? Evans is correct to say that abusive husbands often self-evaluate positively. They're wrong. So what measure could we use that would tell us they were wrong.

First, it wouldn't be a standardized bubble-check test. It wouldn't be a marital checklist that somebody in government whipped up and shipped out to all the married couples in the country. Marriage is complicated and complex. A complex assessment system that could account for all the variety would be nearly impossible to create and use. A simple assessment would be too easy to game.

The true assessment emerges from community. If husband and wife both think they have a good marriage, it seems more likely they're correct. If their children and extended family also think it's a good marriage, that means something. If their extended family and friends and neighbors think they have a good marriage, that means something. Can any assessment of their marriage be perfect? No, never. But can we do a better job by deploying a government functionary with a questionnaire? No, never.

But couldn't we do better with an objective measure of what a good marriage is?

No, because there is no such thing as an objective measure. I believe that something which is destructive and harmful is not good-- but even I have to admit that this judgment represents a moral and ethical judgment on my part. Every single human being has a set of biases, beliefs, values and perspectives that contribute to their subjective view. By the time you factor in all the possible elements, you will not have a sharp, clear straight line graph. Instead, you'll be looking at a blast of scattered points. Will they be completely random and meaningless? No-- you'll have a strange attractor, a fuzzy shape around which the points cluster.

The more data points you have, the clearer the strange attractor will become. This applies both to evaluating the individual child and defining "good" for all students. The more data points you gather, the clearer the shape will become, but you will never reach a point of being able to draw a clear and inarguable line between good and not-good.

So it takes a whole community to develop an idea of what 'good" means in that community. As hokey as it sounds, it really does take a village to raise a child, not a bureaucrat with a clipboard.It takes a wide variety of points of view, perspectives, insights and relationships, all of them informed by the person's experience (an expert is someone who has seen more examples than the average human).

Part of what's wrong with reformster initiatives is that they are based on limited points of view. Common Core was developed by very carefully excluding a variety of viewpoints. And in the reformster narrative, a teacher who has seen thousands of examples of the educational ideas being discussed has no more weight than a reformster who has seen two or one or none.

Judgment is hard. Humans have always wanted to find a shortcut, a checklist, a simple connect-the-dots model that will make it easy. It never works, because it doesn't exist. The mark, the target, the standard shifts and changes every day, depending on the people, the setting, the history, the context, and the only way to make a judgment is to be there, involved, connected and close. The model of having every student accompanied through the year, day in and day out, by a trained, experienced, committed, concerned, experienced teacher-- it is the only model that can possibly answer the question "How is that student doing," and even then it can only give an approximate answer. To have two such professionals speak to each other about comparing their charges would likewise provide a rough approximation for an answer.

I know some folks want more. They can't have it, any more than we can set a standard for judging whether smoke is doing a good job of curling up along the right path from a fire.

Being human is hard. Becoming better at it is hard. That's why we have a whole system set up that pairs young humans up with older humans to help them grow and learn and become. There will always be people who want to make that system codified and standardized, but they will always be frustrated and they will always be wrong.


  1. I don't really understand how we're having this conversation in the context of a country where the most elite and desirable primary and secondary schools have no standardized testing anyhow.

  2. Not to stretch the example beyond its limits, but couldn't we have a broad community standard that said that no person in a family should suffer physical injury at the hands of another? We would not need to prescribe specific techniques for anger management or recipes for marital bliss. I would agree that having a Washington bureaucrat making that standard is far from ideal, but if we allowed local standards, we might find that domestic abuse is tolerated in some communities and have to wrestle with that problem.

    Is it possible to develop national standards in an open and transparent way, and then permit states, local school boards, and teachers to determine how best to meet those standards and how best to evaluate their progress? I would say yes, but as you have pointed out repeatedly, that was not the purpose of CCSS, nor was it the objective of those who created it. In fact, one of the side effects of CCSS is that it has poisoned that particular well.

    1. I think your point about local standards has merit, and in some other post that I can't find right now, Peter mentions that the Feds could have general things NOT to do, like discriminate and I forget what else.

      I think your question about having national standards,but to figure out how to implement and evaluate them be at the local level, should be possible if they weren't connected to tests - it's really what we used to have at the state level - but there's still the question of who makes the standards, and I think it ought to start at the local level. I think there should be teacher consortiums at the local level in the summers to earn credits for re-licensure where each teacher posits what they think is most important for what they teach, and compare their list with others who teach the same thing and come to a consensus, then do the same thing at maybe the county level, till you get up to the state level. And states could look at what other states have done. But it should still be guidelines more than anything else.

    2. This sounds good in the abstract, but I have some experience with it in the field. I volunteered to sit on a committee to determine what should be on Indiana End of Course Assessment in physics, and was disappointed to find out that despite gobs of research backed up by well-verified measures, breadth of topics was still valued over depth.

      Physics teachers do not agree on that point, and on many others. We also can fool ourselves into believing we are far more effective that we actually are. In such an abstract area, it is easy to be drawn into "pseudoteaching." [For the definition and explanation, see Frank Noschese's excellent post here]

      Standards too often eventually lead away from a teacher carefully evaluating reality about what is being learned and straight down the rabbit hole of pseudoteaching, especially when the emphasis is placed on the results of a test or the meeting of certain standards.

      Left to my own judgement, I would not even dream of covering all the topics in the redesign of the AP Physics 1 course I am teaching. I know my students, and most of them need more time to develop skills. I personally don't care-I am there to teach physics. I don't care if they score well on the test or not-they will learn good skills and neat stuff about the universe. But this year I was told that I will be evaluated on these test results. A test which has never been given before. And I feel the pressure, indeed I do, to abandon the slow kids and concentrate on the top of the class, because that is how I am going to be evaluated as a teacher. I do not see how standards or a standardized test are raising my teaching. They are more of an impediment than an improvement to my teaching.

    3. Interesting link. It also led me to a fascinating discussion of pseudocontext.

    4. It's interesting to know that physics teachers are in such disagreement about what exactly is most important to teach. I've found the same with teaching foreign language. So, while it's interesting to know what others think, that's why I think any kind of "standards" should only be guidelines.

  3. I'd like to take this moment to welcome Christine Evans to the United States of America where we value individualism, independence, and freedom and the messy democracy that goes along with them. Please enjoy your stay.