Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Last night I made the mistake of watching the film Moneyball, about the baseball general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, who figured out a way to revolutionize his sport by concentrating solely on his players' statistical performance, as opposed to the inclusion of more traditional measures such as personality, looks, attitude, health, age or other difficult-to-quantify factors.  The underdog element of the story gives it its biggest punch, as the team he manages resides in a smaller market, and thus can't afford to compete with larger teams, who can afford to buy superstars for their teams. 

Yet this appeal to humility makes the film deeply ironic.  A sense of unfairness and cold economics is responded to with an even colder, albeit deviously smart, emphasis on calculation and dehumanization.   While romantic notions of well-matched competition might have been dashed by market realities and multi-million-dollar salaries that turned the game into a dueling of paychecks, the underdog response is neither pluck, serendipity nor sheer human courage, but rather a double-down dueling of rigid statistical maneuvering.  Adding insult to injury, the team is managed like widgets, coldly fired and hired at will, shuffled like inorganic set-pieces.  Tellingly, the film seems to recognize this dynamic, and in a nod to the existence of what a more touchy-feely type might describe as human "spirit", draws a causal connection between more humane contact between administration and the players and their increased performance on the field.

Whether because I'm not a natural fan of baseball, or just tedious scenes of complex business deals over speaker-phones, I eventually turned the film off in boredom.  Maybe I just could look at a cocky Brad Pitt shoving another hotdog into his plump lips, talking about the "bottom line" in his greasy sport shirts.

Or maybe because the story hit too close to home.  The film's parallels to education reform are many, even if there are as many differences.  The deepest problem in education may indeed be that so many in the reform movement wouldn't see the differences. 

Leaving aside the romance of the game, the outcome in sports is perfectly clear:  runs, points, errors, touchdowns, etc.  All are right there in front of you in black and white. Success means stepping up to the plate and delivering.  In education, this is true as far as it goes: a good test score generally means a kid is doing well in school.  However, how you get there is infinitely more complex.  In baseball, the individual player is largely responsible for his own success or failure.  He puts in the training hours, and he ultimately gives it his best on the field.

The education reform movement is nothing if not infatuated with numbers.  It designed the infamous NCLB laws that mandated nationwide testing.  It tied those scores to classroom teaching.  It penalized schools and teachers who didn't improve their students' scores.  It brought a business-oriented buzzwords like "accountability", "data" and "performance".  It sought to ignore the human side of teaching, what is possibly one of the most complex of human endeavors, reducing everything to the "bottom-line", literally a number in a column.

Yet this reductionist model, while maybe more meaningful in a simple system like professional sports, or a widget factory, required in its pursuit of simplicity and convenience a throwing out, or ignoring, of vast amounts of relevant data.  Because while baseball players, or widgets, are relatively static, known quantities, students are not.  A baseball player is a highly motivated individual with a set of comprehensive statistics.  A widget is an inorganic unit with a weight, size and shape that can be measured with perfect precision. 

A classroom on the other hand, is a dynamic group of children, all with complex environmental and developmental needs, from a multiplicity of backgrounds and circumstances that change by the day, that must be differentiated by a teacher.  The teacher does not merely deliver content into their heads as if static receptacles.  The teacher must first create an environment in which their minds are safe and comfortable enough to become open to positive learning.  Their social interaction and participation must be carefully orchestrated so as to facilitate not only the acquisition of new knowledge, but its digestion and synthesis with old knowledge to form
greater and deeper understandings which can then be applied in novel ways.  The teacher must assess and identify where each student is at every single moment of class, and subsequently deliver instruction tailored to their specific and unique needs.

In contemporary American society, we are still highly stratified and segregated by human and societal capital.  Thus, a given school's demographic population will vary widely from one community to the next.  The specific and unique needs of the students in classroom X at school Y will be entirely different than the needs of the students in classroom A in school B.  The teaching of such diverse populations of children will be dramatically different.  Because the needs of the students are so different, so to will be their capacity to learn.  For instance, a student with a vocabulary of 20k words will have a much more difficult time studying a given length of grade-level text than a student with a vocabulary of 40k words.  Or, to present a non-academic, but rather environmental, physiological example, a student from a single-parent household who had to put himself to bed, fix his own breakfast, and then ride a bus filled with angry, bullying children will face similar struggles when presented with text to read, when compared with a child from a two-parent home who was lovingly read to before bed, gently woken up, had her hair brushed and driven to school by a calm, soothing mother.

I was recently let-go by a principal who was disappointed that my students were not as engaged as he felt they should have been in my direct-instruction lessons.  This, despite the fact that I teach at a continuation school, where the population is severely emotionally and academically underdeveloped, and face all manner of trauma at home.  For this reason, the staff rarely bothers with direct-instruction, because it is an ineffective model of instruction with our student population, and for the most part only does so because administrators insist on scoring them according to a direct-instruction rubric.  Comments attached to my low-marks would say things like, "a few students were not taking notes", or "one student kept looking at his cell phone". 

In a normal classroom, such expectations might be warranted.  Yet in our setting, where students routinely come to class high, don't show up for days at a time, or sit in silence - only present at because mandated to do so by their probation officer.  Instead, continuation teachers must be much more flexible.  Instruction is centered around credit recovery and the shifting curricular needs of our students.  It is common for every student in a classroom to be working on a different chapter, or even different subject (I taught both Earth Science and Biology).  Most instruction occurs on-on-one, and often involves considerable cajoling and external motivation. 

One of the added benefits of this model is that it naturally lends itself to interpersonal communication and emotional development in the student.  Because they rarely see the counselors, and when they do have little basis for rapport - they are largely highly defiant and anti-institution oriented, they have few opportunity to have their emotional needs addressed.  In informal conversation, life circumstances often are spoken of that illustrate just how traumatic and tragic their home-life often is.   As a teacher who sees them everyday and is able to speak with them in a non-threatening, informal manner, I am able to at least go some way in helping them to rebuild emotionally, a project that is generally at the root of their academic failure.

Absurd then, it is, the administrative pedagogy that would ask teachers to abandon this form of highly-differentiated, complex and nuanced rehabilitation that takes into consideration not merely the student's academic growth, but more fundamentally the particular emotional and behavior development that must be established before higher-order thinking and learning can take place.  In order to understand how this pedagogical malpractice could have taken place, we must return to the wider view of American education reform and how its misguided world-view has shaped administrative thinking, and subsequently lead to a failure to fundamentally appreciate the ways in which learning takes place in the classroom. 

NCLB was created in part to determine which students at which schools were not succeeding academically, and in part to then hold such school accountable for "fixing the problem", or as the law put it, "to leave no child behind".  Although anyone who was familiar socio-economics and education could have told you that an "achievement gap" had already existed for years, NCLB was now delivery powerful demonstrative evidence, in a way that everyone could clearly see. 

Yet what the reformers, a movement obsessed with data, did not see, was the complexity behind the numbers.  Hypnotized by the convenient allure of quantifiable, concrete and manipulable digits, all they saw was a nifty little number problem.  All we had to do now was to get the numbers to even out, to erase the achievement gap.  On paper, it was easy to lose sight of the monumental challenges involved in overcoming the profound developmental inequities that societies have been struggling with for centuries.

When things didn't turn out as planned, the reformers were quick to blame "bad teaching", and the unions who supposedly protected them.  But this ignored the vastly more complex nature of the problem, one that a handful of "bad" teachers couldn't be expected to account for.  Even non-unionized charter schools turned out to fare no better than traditional schools.  The ones who did so relied on selective enrollment, specialized grant supplements in their budget, or simple luck (as many outliers could be found among traditional schools).

While in the end, the Moneyball team didn't win any championship, they did do spectacularly well, given the situation.  It was clearly a victory for some level of data analysis and business-minded administration.  However, one wonders what all of this hyper-institutionalization and dehumanization means for the game.

In education, the approach has led to an all-time low in teacher moral, slashed school budgets, a gutting of non-tested subject areas, countless hours and money wasted on  punitive and aimless professional development, loss of professionalism and the kind of individual initiative that that leads to innovation in the classroom.  Schools are not factories, classrooms are not baseball franchises. 

The pendulum will inevitably swing back, however from here one wonders where that might be, and how many decades it might take.  What we do know for certain, is that the business-model of education has been a disaster, and likely in ways that we have yet to fully realize.

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