Thursday, November 30, 2017

Keeping Up Appearances

Sometimes in this country we are far less concerned with actually doing a thing than we are with looking as if we're doing a thing.

Airport security is a prominent example. Year after year, security experts remind us that airport security sucks, that it is just an elaborate piece of theater. It doesn't actually make us safer, but it puts on a show. It certainly looks like we're making the skies safer-- unless, of course, you understand what you're looking at.

The Keeping Up Appearances approach is handy when really getting serious about a problem would be difficult and expensive. KUA is all about going through some motions that will reassure folks without actually having to expend the work and money it would take to really deal with an issue.

Ed Reform has been a great example of the Keeping Up Appearances approach. At every critical juncture, when we could be asking "How can we best deal with this issue," policy leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians have instead asked "How can we look as if we're dealing with this issue?"

Coming up with national education standards would be a huge and difficult undertaking, requiring a lot of eyes and ears and tons of brainpower, as well as collecting and sifting through a mountain of research that exists and creating another mountain of research that doesn't exist. And that's before we even get to creating a structure by which a robust, resilient and constantly-revising set of standards can be kept up-to-date while responding to ongoing  feedback.

But, hey-- that would be hard, and expensive. So let's just have a few self-appointed, high-self-esteem guys throw something together on the fly. We'll call in some political favors, get some rich backers, and push the Common Core out there. They aren't real national educational standards, but they make it look like we've got them. Close enough.

It's also really hard to tell exactly how well students are doing, or how effective schools and teachers are. It would require several more mountains of research into what real success looks like both in the short and long run, and that in turn would lead us to new, complex and creative measures of those most important factors that we have identified. It would take a whole organization just to collect, analyze, and interpret the data. It would be super-hard and hella expensive.

So instead, let's just make every kid take a standardized test. It won't really measure anything worth measuring, but it sure looks as if we're gathering honest-to-goodness data about student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Close enough.

Even school choice. I mean, we could set up a full, robust network of schools in a community, with each school offering different strengths and programs. We'd have to allow for extensive training and research into effective approaches, and the real expense would be staggering, with multiple facilities instead of one, and a surplus of seats. With students spread over several different entities, the oversight requirements just to keep students from falling through the cracks, let alone making sure that the various choice schools are delivering on their promises-- well, that would be a fairly huge extra department as well. The entire system could be impressive and exciting, but it would involve the costs of running several schools where we used to only fund one-- the taxpayer bill would be enormous, but if people were really serious about choice and variety and a superior education for every single child in America, political leaders would be able to lead a call for much higher taxes to make this dream real.

Or, we could just let anybody open any old kind of charter school, provide zero oversight, and let everyone fight over funding that is a fraction of what's needed. And just scrap that whole "make sure every child gets an outstanding education (and not just an opportunity)" business. Close enough.

High quality full education? Eh, just get some reading and math in there. In fact, just stick to the stuff that employers ask for. Attacking the problems of poverty? Just make some noises about how education will fix everything, somehow. Systemic racism? Just, you know, act real concerned occasionally. Trying to fix the teacher "shortage"? Have a committee issue some findings.

We could list dozens of ways in which policy leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats try to half-ass their way to looking as if they are addressing an issue in education. If you have been in the classroom for more than five years, you already have a list of all the times our "leaders" announced their latest plan to "fix" something about schools by way of some not-really-serious program whose real objective is to keep up appearances, to look as if we are actually working on the issues. The people really working on solutions-- those are the ones standing by the "leaders'" elbows saying, "Well, you know, that part where I get to make a bunch of money pretending to address this issue-- I like that part. Keep that part."

Meanwhile, teachers are in actual classrooms addressing actual issues with actual students, where authentic solutions are required. I can't help a student by trying to look as if I care about him. I can't teach a unit by trying to look as if we're studying it while I try to look as if I know what I'm talking about. I won't come up with evaluations for the students by looking as if I went over their work.

This lack of seriousness has always been a feature of public education. If it seems worse right now, that is perhaps because the White House is occupied by a guy who's mostly trying to look as if he's a President, surrounding himself with people who look as if they would be good for their jobs. Education has always been plagued by half-assed smoke and mirrors; now it's just a national problem for all sectors as well.


  1. You almost always remind me of James Herndon (_How to Survive in Your Native Land) is one of the greatest books about teaching ever), and this piece clicks with maybe my favorite line of his:

    "Institutions are places to do things where those things will not be done."

  2. “When a measure becomes a target, it is no longer a useful measure.”

  3. How can politicians and reformers be serious when they seriously don’t have a clue? If they were at all serious about improving education they would have addressed the fact that there are many public schools and districts that are wildly successful by every quantitative and qualitative measure. And they would have analyzed why they are successful and then tried to implement policies, programs, and products that used these successful models.

    Instead they used bogus test scores to shine a spotlight on a problem everyone knew existed, but never asking why? Any teacher who has spent even a few years in high needs school could draw up the* list in just a few minutes. And if they were really serious about helping, they would have realized that the solutions are far beyond the reach of educators or edu-fakers and their misguided policies, programs, and products. The problem is that reformers tucked safely away in their institutes, think tanks, and ivory towers cannot even conceive of the shitty lives that millions of children are living in the shadows of our cities – big and small, or in run down trailer parks and hovels hidden far away in poor rural counties across the land. They have no clue and never intended to get one. Keeping up appearances? Ha! How about keeping up a line of bullshit while they peddle their snake oil, laughing all the way to the bank.

    *The List: Why Students Fail to Succeed in School

    Family dysfunction
    Single parent homes
    Pre-natal neglect
    Physical and psychological neglect, abuse, and violence
    Low parental expectations
    Chronic stress
    Food insecurity
    Sub-standard health care
    Unstructured home lives
    Chronic absenteeism
    Drug and alcohol abuse
    Generational poverty
    Economic hopelessness
    Mental illness
    Cognitive disabilities
    Severe knowledge and skill deficits
    Unsafe and unhealthy school buildings

    Please note, standards, curriculum, and pedagogy don’t even make the list.

    1. Absolutely. The book "Evicted" is very instructive on the desperate insecurity of our poorest citizens. Writing your objective on the board is a laughable solution.

  4. I find this whole post confusing as there is the underlying implication that people are simply doing things "half-assed" and are not interested in committing real resources, when in fact what is happening in a well-planned transformation of public education into a global market based on education data. Are you really advocating for complex and creative accountability measures with lots of academic research? Are you really saying instead of fully funded neighborhood schools we should have some sort of other public "choice" based option? Because that sounds an awful lot like a Third Way-aligned strategy to me.

    Peter, you are a smart person who knows this landscape. While this flip tone, may be endearing to some who appreciate the avuncular humor, I think the characterization you provide here actually poses a dangerous distraction from the true end game that is just off stage right.

    It has to do with Pay for Success, ed-tech, and social impact finance.

    1. Not sure what your confusion is. I did not imply that people are doing "some things" half-assedly, but that we're half-assing our way through providing a top-notch education system. The transformation that you're talking about has nothing to do with providing as top-notch education system, but is one more example of why we are half-assing it-- because the goal is really something else entirely.