Mark Garrison is a helluva guy. He lists scholar, activist, evaluator and artist as his businesses, and lists two books and three albums among his achievements. He has clearly put a whole lot of thought into the current state of education policy, with a particular sharp eye for the problems of Trying To Measure Stuff. Garrison says many things I agree with, but he says it all smarter.
In "Metric Morality," Garrison addresses the issue of just what can be measured, and why the current educational measurements are doomed to fail. I love this stuff, because it cuts to why the whole concept of educational metrics is, as he puts it, "fraudulent."
"They confound properties of individuals, individual schools and individual school systems with the relations those individuals, individual schools and individual school systems have with their social contexts." In other words, they talk about qualities like "wetness" as being properties of the individual and not as they are related to whether one is standing inside, under an umbrella, or outside naked in a monsoon.
They "follow the long discredited practice of defining the object of measurement 'operationally'; that is, things and phenomena are defined by how they are 'measured'." Garrison's example is perfect-- the definition of "intelligence" is the ability to do well on an intelligence test. Yay, tautology.
They use the "flawed definition" of measurement which is the process of assigning numbers according to some rule. This, Garrison says, ties directly to the notion that everything that exists must exist in some amount. "This would mean, for example, that we accept the proposition that humans exist in their degree of human-ness. Some of us are more human than others. Thankfully, the testers will select the chosen ones!"
They confuse ranking with measurement. Garrison seems to attribute this to confusion; I'm inclined to think reformsters do it on purpose. As noted a gazzillion times-- the fact that a school falls in that fatal bottom 5% does not mean it's a bad school-- just that it is ranked below the other 95%. The best rock band in Uraguay may still be a lousy rock band. Rank is not measurement.
Also, cut scores are baloney, and nobody even pretends to understand what "validity" and "reliability" mean -- or used to mean-- in the testing world.
Garrison considers the way in which leaders like Elia of New York have equated allegiance to the testing regime with morality and ethic. He might as easily noted Pennsylvania, where our test administration instructions are called "Ethical Standards of Test Administration," as if our role in overseeing the holy test is one founded on ethical principles rather than compliance to power and money.
But this takes him right to our old buddy, behaviorism.
In "The Behaviorist Origin of Close Reading," Garrison travels back to the twenties and the roots of the original close reading. Garrison sides with the critics who assert that close reading founding father I. A. Richards was directly tied to the behaviorist work of John Watson.
Some of us were learning all about behaviorism in teacher school back in the seventies, but it's not a popular term these days, so we can talk about personalized learning and game-based learning without ever noting the similarity to a big, computerized Skinner box. And just as sure as TSWBAT means "the student will be able to display an observable behavior that will be the entire basis for measuring the educational results," behaviorism has made a comeback.
Common Core reading is all about observable skills, and what we cannot see or measure does not count. One of Garrison's very best lines is actually a subheading from this essay:
Behaviorism: Yearning for Skill Without Consciousness
Garrison explains the disregard for consciousness in behaviorism:
A key tenet is this: Behaviorists have in common disregard for or denial of human consciousness. Because consciousness is not something one “does”, it is not “observable”; its existence or importance is denied in favor of fixing attention on behavior itself.
Or as David Coleman put it, "Nobody gives a shit what you think or feel." Or, he might have added, what you know. Just what you can do.
The behaviorists didn't much care for words like "consciousness" or "intent." They can't be seen or measured, and as I heard repeatedly in more than one college course, you don't need them to explain human behavior. Somewhere in my house, I still have my copy of Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity(1971) in which Skinner makes the case that our devotion to these tired old notions of free will and individual moral agency are keeping us from using scientific techniques like operant conditioning to modify behavior so that we can have a happier and more orderly society. Skinner's idea was a form of determinism, the notion that human behavior was just a collection of behavioral tics created by conditioning, and with the proper conditioning, we could get people to have the proper tics.
"Skill" is a nice term for a particular tic, a tic that humans are trained to perform when given the appropriate stimulus.
So. Is any of this sounding familiar?
Close Reading, says Garrison, adopted much of the behaviorist creed. First, treat the text as a behavior. It is, in fact, a perfect example, since the page has no consciousness or intent, and we are instructed to deliberately ignore the author's intent. The reader's response is a reaction to the behavior-- the behavior that the behavior elicits. In this model, there is nothing to analyze (and certainly nothing to understand, since understanding is all about consciousness and intent and moral agency) except how exactly the behavior elicited the response. It's simply figuring out what about the hot stove made you holler and yank your hand away; there is nothing more to reading Shakespeare or Morrison than setting your hand on a stove and seeing what you do next.
As Garrison puts it:
For Richards, “all mental events — including literature — occur in the
course of processes of adaptation somewhere between stimulus and
response”. Thus we have the basis for a method that renders the skill of reading necessarily devoid of consciousness.
My friends and I were not fans of behaviorism in college. It has its initial charm-- the surprise of a simple and clear explanation for much messiness of human existence-- but it's just so dehumanizing, cold, and ethically empty. It certainly has its place; there is much human behavior that becomes more comprehensible through the behaviorist lens. Ultimately it's too inhuman and inhumane, while suffering from a serious "if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. I could never understand why behaviorists didn't just say, "We can explain some aspects of human behavior, but beyond certain points we don't have enough tools in our box." (And don't even get me started on Walden Two, Skinner's 1948 big middle finger to Thoreau and the very concept of a human soul).
Garrison has done a good job of illuminating the connection between bad metrics, bad behaviorism, and the hollow futility of some current reformster ideals. And he affirms what many folks had already figured out for themselves-- that much of the current reformster regime feels counter-intuitive and anti-human because it is.