I'm baaaaaaack.

Hoarding All the Glitter Since 2001.

04 June 2011

Education Culture and the Normalization of Deviance

I have been reading the Report to the Governor on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.  It's heavy reading and I don't know much about mining.  So I have to do a lot of supplemental internet searches to make sure I understand the terminology and descriptions.  (They also use verbatim quotes from interviews, not translated into Standard American English, so I get distracted by the dialect features.)  The ultimate conclusion is that the explosion was the entirely avoidable result of a destructive, self-reinforcing organizational culture.  The authors compare Massey to NASA and the explosion to the Challenger disaster.  What they suggest is a series of bad principles (profit over worker, distrust of regulations, etc.) that led to a series of small decisions (don't take this one reading, use airlock doors instead of walls this one time, it's okay if miners walk in a little water) that got bigger (don't provide technicians with devices to take readings, always use airlock doors, it's okay if miners need chest waders everyday).  Running alongside these were cultural norms that reinforced small bad judgements (reports of coal production every half hour, nasty notes to foremen when production went down on their watch, safety boards that posted the names of injured workers, devious contracts that made it nearly impossible for workers to advocate for safety, etc.).

When you have all these individually small bad judgements, you need to have a culture that inculcates and prizes bad judgement generally: a culture that normalizes deviance - in this case from accepted mine safety regulations and common sense.

I think the idea of a deviant organizational culture is hugely applicable to the Great Education Failure.  The problem is that the solutions that educrats claim will solve the problem are just new applications of the same flawed and deviant measures.

For instance: standardized testing.  We know - we indisputably know - that there are huge issues with standardized testing:

  • Testing instruments are racially and culturally biased.  There are countless examples of this all over the internet.
  • We have a widespread cultural ideology that testing well is not necessarily the same as having good knowledge/being smart, hence the use of statements like "I just test well" or "S/he doesn't test well".
  • Standardized tests are reductive; they require either closed-response questions or rapidly-graded written responses.
  • Life success correlates poorly with the skills needed to respond well to questions of that type.
Regardless, standardized tests have certain apparent strengths (easy to administer, efficient to score, etc.) that make them popular.  So now we use them as a final, unchallenged metric of student performance.  Our culture has already ignored the baseline problems.  Indeed, we ignore them so well that we judge using only this metric:
  • Schools, districts and states receive performance results based entirely on test results.
  • These performance standards do not even bother to weigh in differences within states in the testing instruments used or the scoring metrics that mark them.
  • Regardless, results are compared.
Despite these problems, big dollars are riding on test results.  Now the individual operators within the deviant culture are pressured to make bad decisions.  Students must perform well on these tests at any cost, so
  • states make it easier to pass the tests, further reducing the likelihood that the tests measure much
  • schools and teachers spend valuable learning time on test-taking strategies
  • whatever is tested becomes the most important subject, and all others are forgotten
  • given the nature of annual tests, short-sighted decisions are made (no recess, for instance) and never adjusted - there's no time
  • the pressure to skew results (by making sure certain students don't test or receive accomodations, or by outright cheating) leads to even less chance of tests measuring anything
However, when we talk about "successful schools" or "schools overcoming the odds", we are talking about schools with high test scores. Our badly-chosen metric has led to a rotten system of accountability, and everyone on the ground is making decisions within that culture.

Now we want to use those same lousy instruments to determine teachers' job security and pay.

You tell me: what's the education equivalent of a mine explosion?

No comments: