Thursday, May 18, 2017

Atlanta redux

I have heard of Campbell's Law before, but not in a long time, despite its pressing relevance.
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Referenced by Frederick deBoer in Campbell’s Law and the inevitability of school fraud. Well worth a read.
Many people have pointed to rising graduation rates as evidence of the effectiveness of ed reform. And more kids graduating from high school is a good thing indeed. But there’s concerns about the graduation rate, involving juking the stats (again) and the fear that this stems from lower standards rather than objectively better students. (Take Renewal Schools here in NYC, for example.) I’m agnostic on the overall question, although I agree with pessimists who say, for example, that something like a third to a half of all graduating American high school students probably couldn’t demonstrate the requisite level of algebra ability required to graduate from high school. The question is, what happens when you combine intense pressure from above to graduate students along with the reality that (as I keep insisting) student outcomes are not nearly as plastic as policy types like to imagine they are?


It’s essential to say: this kind of dynamic, where a crusading spirit and insistence that everyone can achieve to the same level collides with the limitations of reality, makes fraud, lowered standards, or both inevitable. It’s an entirely predictable condition; as long as you make people’s jobs dependent on reaching metrics that they can’t reach legitimately, they will achieve them illegitimately. It doesn’t matter how much integrity they have. It doesn’t matter if they’re good people. It doesn’t matter if they’re really invested in their students success. Campbell’s Law is not a normative claim but an empirical observation; educational fraud does happen under these conditions, no matter what we think about it morally. And these lowered standards inevitably come back to bite us in the end, as these students go on to colleges where they either fail out from lack of prerequisite ability or are graduated into jobs they then can’t perform. That’s a problem here in the CUNY system, for example, where 57% of undergraduates can’t pass an algebra test. Advancing them in the system might seem humane at the individual level but in the broader perspective it’s just amplifying problems.

This is a story that some might imagine inspires a level of bitter cynicism in me. But I don’t feel embittered about the story; I just feel sad about it. It seems genuinely tragic to me, in that there are genuinely good intentions leading to these bad outcomes. The charter school world is no doubt full of profiteers and con men, but I also acknowledge that many people really believe their cheery, fingers-stuck-in-their-ears rhetoric about how every single child is capable of excelling. The problem is that this enthusiasm is destructive in a world where different students have very real differences in their individual ability and in the socioeconomic and environmental conditions in which they learn. Truly humane education policy would acknowledge those differences, not attempt to paper them over with cheerful, dishonest bromides. What we need to accept as a society is that what’s really “killing these kids” is not their lack of academic preparation for college but an economic system in which only those who are so prepared have a meaningful shot at a comfortable and secure life.

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