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MSPnet Blog: “Questioned assumptions #2: Quantifying people for best results”

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posted December 30, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

How often a reasonable idea can become a bad one, depending on the company it keeps! Examples are everywhere, and they are at least as common in education as other aspects of society. I have come to the conclusion that the increasing insistence upon quantitative accountability is a prime example. When someone asks me “Don’t we have to know how well we’re doing?” I have to answer “Yes, that seems like a good idea.”  Used pedagogically (that is, to support student growth), information about what a student knows and can do can give a teacher some help in reflecting about next steps.  Teachers know that no one measure gives enough information about a student on its own.   So it’s generally wise to have several ways of looking at a complex question — data from performances (e.g. project work), classroom observations, written tests, and more.  Each has limitations, so the combination provides more than additive understanding.

Yet the idea of “evaluation” in education quickly gets combined with ideas of control (in the guise of governance), social engineering, and education as an essentially economic activity. All this data collection has consequences whose benefits are hard to see, given the potential — and real — costs. While better information should enable better decisions, this is not always true, especially when we hardly understand the data we’ve collected.   In any case, the dictates of efficiency militate in favor of using fewer and fewer metrics, to simplify decision-making, regardless of how much information is ignored in the process.

A recent exhibit (see Anthony Cody at “Living in Dialogue”  here): Genetic data possibly relating to personality traits as the basis for educational decisions.   Cody comments on a New York Times article by Jay Belsky, who is reflecting on the ethical issues opened up by genetic research in this area.  The key pull quote from Belsky:  “One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers. Not only because they would improve the most, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction. The less susceptible — and more resilient — children are more likely to do O.K. no matter what.”

So here we have some emergent (and therefore highly tentative) science already paired (in one person’s mind, at least) with decisions about resource allocations.  In a political economy where education (like other aspects of social life) is increasingly commodified, it makes obvious sense to increasingly differentiate the subjects (children), who are both recipients of “services” (themselves commercial transactions) and products of a system to be optimized for efficiency.  As Belsky writes, “Those who value equity over efficacy will object to the notion of treating children differently because of their genes. But if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this? What is ethical, after all, about providing services to individuals for whom we believe they will not prove effective, especially when spending taxpayers’ money?”

Belsky is apparently struggling with the ethics here, and deserves credit for naming and engaging with a kind of problem that will only become more pressing as various lines of research in biology and psychology gain momentum.  Cody (clearly coming down on the “equity” side as against “efficiency”) raises the alarm about this whole line of approach as being a veiled eugenics .

Though I am sympathetic to that concern, my own “equity” vote is cast for somewhat different reasons.  Belsky’s “modest proposal” raises several topics of concern to educators and the general public, including the uses of research, the romance of the gene, the politics of measurement, and life in a technocracy.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll return to these issues one by one, as I try to unpack for myself why I find this Cody-Belsky pairing so interesting and provocative.   Did you see Belsky’s article, or Cody’s blog post?  What do you think?


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Resource allocation decisions is what teachers already do.

posted by: David May on 1/13/2015 11:00 am


Very interesting post! I agree that the commodification of education is highly problematic yet increasingly pervasive. The subtly eugenicist example you describe is one of many examples of one key aspect of that commodification: mistrusting teachers to do their jobs.

One goal of genotype testing is apparently to determine which students need which instruction. But that's what teachers do all the time: pay attention to their students and decide what to do, whether it's address one student's comment or question, speak to the whole class or to a group of students, or take a student aside for a private chat. And in each case, they also have to decide WHAT to say based on what they are hearing/seeing and on what they already know about their students.

Genotype testing is just another way (and there are many) to take decisions like these out of the hands of teachers and give them to those who don't have as much information or knowledge about the students.

I'm not saying large-scale data collection by those outside the classroom can't be useful; but in the current climate I can't just trust the motivations of those advocating such measures and therefore must scrutinize them that much more.

Thanks for all the interesting blog posts, Brian! I wish I had time to read and comment on them all!

--David May
Minority Student Pipeline MSP

Technocracy and education

posted by: Brian Drayton on 1/20/2015 8:02 am

Thanks for your post, David, and your encouraging words.

It does seem to me that too much educational policy betrays an underlying mindset which is not just limited to education. It might be called "technocratic," with the implication that we are seeking specific and definitive solutions for complex problems that are not really amenable to that kind of response. Some people talk about "silver bullet" solutions, or the illusion of the "one best system." Jal Mehta had an interesting article in Teachers College Record in 2013 that bears on this ("The penetration of technocratic logic into the educational field," Teachers College Record Vol 115, 050301,) though of course Dewey and other social critics have made similar criticisms.
As you say, the issue of motivations and values overlay this general over-confidence in the technical. Part of what we need to do is learn to see and name the various layers of logic in a very complicated machinery which, after all, really resides in the minds, habits, and intentions of individual people. Given the tendency that people have to filter information and ideas according to their ideological commitments, it's a massive educational effort in its own right.
More soon!
-- brian