Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I lived The Normal Accident Theory of Education today

Since my school is on Focus--a subgroup in our school didn't make adequate yearly progress on the state test and we have to undergo a certain course of remediation, the leadership got to go to a state-mandated seminar about using a program to input all our school goals, the indicators we're watching as reflection of our pursuit of those goals, the plans we have to improve on those indicators so we can meet those goals, evidence of our having met those goals, etc., etc., etc. (say that in Yul Brynner's The King and I voice).

Somebody somewhere (in a state bureaucracy) understands everything about the minutiae of this program.  There are 134 indicators, for crying out loud!  But we only have to pick indicators for the seven principles about how to turnaround a school.  And you pick those 7 from the list of the 17 ├╝ber-indicators, which the state has identified ahead of time.  Or something like that.  I can't really tell you, because somebody talked at us for basically 5 hours, with a half hour lunch break.

I sat there the whole time thinking, 'this is the Normal Accident Theory of Education in action.'  Nobody at my table--7 teachers and a principal--could make durable sense of even 5% of what we all heard.  Our principal finally said, "We'll just have our coach (appointed by the state, I think) help us with this."

In short, this was more rules, regulations, programs, bureaucracies, bureaucrats, Yul Brynner (above), which makes for more confusion, institutional complexity and, therefore, increased likelihood of "failure."

I was also musing on Neil Postman's observation (in his brilliant Technopoly, I think it was) about the growing impulse--now a tidal wave--to numerate everything, so we can measure it, regress it, compare it and analyze it.  At some point during all this talk, one document (or was it a web page, or was it ...who can remember?) had something of an epigraph at the bottom.  It went like this:

If you're not changing the data, you're not changing the school.

Now, I'm sure the folks who created the workshop are sure they understand this.  Or, more to the point, they live and breath some sort of air that tells them that things measured by numbers that we can "assess" are the only things that are really worth talking about because those are the only things you can use to verifiably demonstrate you've accomplished something.  Changed numbers prove you've changed the school.

We assume that the changed numbers reflect a real change in something actually worth changing, and that's actually a pretty big assumption.  The new thinking about how Advanced Placement seats indicates "rigor" and greater "college readiness" is data driven (more students in more AP seats is the goal--numerated, measurable, Yul Brynner) but hasn't exactly worked out the way we might think.  (For a reminder, see here.)

Or take the other angle.  You could change the data, but not really change the school.  (Isn't it student learning we're supposed to be aiming for, anyway?)   I don't want to go very far with this, but just think cheating.  Changed data, no change in student learning.

But be more serious.  The student growth I have to show as part of my teacher evaluation...I can construct assessments that maximize the chances for growth.  I can coach to the assessments (even the state one).  In short, I can show numbers that look good, but I can assure you that they don't necessarily reflect all the learning that young human needs to do.

I think it might be fortunate that I didn't listen to closely today.  That way I can go back to my room without worrying too terribly much about the effects of the bureaucratic tornado that just blew past.

No comments: