Measuring Away Our Dignity

Last week, Mister S tweeted a link to an interview with Diane Ravitch recently published in Education Leadership. That interview has been turning over in my mind ever since. Mister S and I had the opportunity to see Ravitch speak a while back. She’s such a voice of reason right now–I only wish that the power brokers would listen to her.

And then one of my students posted this on his Google Site for my class (a place where I’m asking my students to collect links and thoughts relevant to their thinking toward our big essential question this semester): “Merits and Limits of Applying the Scientific Method to Human Society.”

Having been trained as an educational researcher, married to a PhD biologist, this is actually something I’ve thought quite a bit about. Husband and I actually had an argument in the car in the parking lot of the grocery store once about the role of the hypothesis in social science research (he argued that it was irresponsible to do any sort of research starting without the hypothesis and I argued that when you’re studying human beings in complex settings like classrooms you often go about things differently). So I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

But I’ve never seen someone come at the issue quite the way that the author of the above mentioned article does.

In a nutshell, the argument here is that while the scientific approach can help us to understand issues in society and even fix them, there is a cost: human dignity. Human beings are not simple matter than can be manipulated in an experiment.

This got me thinking about the test-score driven world of education that we live in. It’s all about the numbers, the evaluation tool, applying the right method across multiple classrooms regardless of the unique qualities in each. All at a loss of human dignity for the students and teachers who people classrooms.

The article engages in some heavy philosophical questions that I cannot do justice to here in this blog post, but I wanted to share a few tidbits from the article that stood out to me. As you read them, please think about how these ideas relate to how our society is currently dealing with education:

History has proven, that it is possible to apply scientific rationality also to social structures, in other words, to organize human beings in hierarchical structures, to consider conflicts as errors of communication and to try to consider human beings as exchangeable. The advantages in particular for building large industrial complexes has been considerable. However, there is a price. The question we have to ask at this particular point in history, is whether we are willing to pay this price also in the future. In other words, do the advantages of applying the scientific rationality to social structures warrant the price we have to pay for it.

And I ask, do the advantages of applying scientific rationality to the structures of education warrant the price we are already paying for it? What exactly is that price? (I think The Real Mr. Fitz articulated the price extremely well in his open letter to Obama about the ironies present in current educational policy.)

The article makes an important distinction, that science reveals the “laws of nature,” only applicable to “space and time.” And using the philosophy of Descartes, the article argues that the mind falls outside of the realm of matter. Also in that realm, the realm of the mind, Descartes’ philosophy places communication, meaning, understanding, and decisions–things based on value. The philosophy goes on to explain that in the realm of science one finds action, description, and predictions based on prior knowledge.

Now think about the classroom. Description, predictions, and knowledge certainly have their important place in the classroom. And it is fairly straightforward to measure these things. The most relevant education though I would argue goes beyond this, to communication, meaning, understanding, and decisions–all concepts far more difficult to measure (which is why this article is so troubling to me. I’d much rather see resources for building a computer program that can grade writing going toward something that will actually improve daily life and learning for students in classrooms, like supporting teachers with the resources and time they need to teach writing really well–something that requires teachers immerse themselves in the writing of their students).

The article goes on to make clear what is meant by “understanding”:

Let me explain a little bit the distinction between “description” and “understanding”. Matter in space and time is described by the laws of nature given by the scientific method. These laws allow for predictions, they may even “explain” parts of our material world, but we should not call it “understanding” in the true sense. I shall reserve the term “understanding” for human communication. I can understand the decision or the action of a person to whom I am close, I cannot understand the law of gravitation in the sense that I have emotional response to the need of a falling rock.

So “understanding” requires human communication and emotion, not description or predictions. Per this definition, no large-scale evaluation instrument (like a high-stakes test) can possibly measure understanding, thus boiling down what we do in classrooms to things such tests CAN measure efficiently. And when the stakes are high for test scores to improve, what happens in classrooms becomes less and less meaningful as it drifts away from human communication and emotion.

The article cites a “great psychotherpist and educator, Carl Rogers”:

“If we choose to utilize our scientific knowledge for free men, then it will demand that we live openly and frankly with the great paradox of the behavioral sciences. We will recognize that behavior, when examined scientifically, is surely best understood as determined by prior causation. This is the great fact of science. But responsible personal choice, which is the most essential element in being a person, which is the core experience in psychotherapy, which exists prior to any scientific endeavor, is an equally prominent fact in our lives. We will have to live with the realization that to deny the reality of the experience of responsible personal choice is as stultifying, as closed-minded, as to deny the possibility of a behavioral science. That these two important elements of our experience appear to be in contradiction has perhaps the same significance as the contradiction between the wave theory and the corpuscular theory of light, both of which can be shown to be true, even though incompatible. We cannot profitably deny our subjective life, any more than we can deny the objective description of that life”.

I do not deny what behavioral science has taught us about education and learning. But this argues that a strict stance on behavioral science denies the existence of “personal choice.” This is something that Diane Ravitch has argued about evaluating teachers on student test scores. The teacher could do absolutely everything right in the classroom according to theories of learning and teaching, but the that same teacher cannot guarantee that a student will choose to do as well as possible on the test that evaluates the teacher’s “effectiveness.” Our human subjectivity exists alongside all attempts to measure learning objectively, and it’s not dignified to hold teachers accountable for students’ subjectivity, something that teachers have no control over. And more important, it is not dignified to pretend that students aren’t subjective beings who make their own decisions and choices for a whole variety of reasons. This actually insults our students and does not honor them as human beings.

The article states that “that the application of scientific rationality to human society means its reduction to matter in space and time” and explains that scientific rationality has been helpful in many cases. Certainly there are ways that scientific rationality has been helpful in education. The longitudinal data we have from the NAEP for example, really does tell us some things about education in our country (interesting that this test is NOT given every year for every grade, that it is NOT mandated, and that there are NO high stakes attached to the results). But the thing about students is that they are part of the human realm, and not mere test score producers. The article continues:

Let us now ask the specific question what we lose, if we apply this reduction. In so doing, I would like to follow Immanuel Kant (7), who pointed out very clearly, that there is something very special in the human realm (“Reich der Zwecke”). It is the uniqueness of the individual human being, the “ego” (or I), which cannot be replaced, which is not reproducible. Again, it should be admitted, that there is also a reproducible part in any human individual; otherwise large hierarchical structures in the industry, say, would not work. As far as the “working force” of human individuals is concerned, there is exchangeability. However, insofar a human being can be the “object of love”, it is unique and not replaceable.

Immanuel Kant has pointed out, that in the human realm everything has either a price or dignity. What is exchangeable has a price, what is unique, constitutes dignity. Although this may be a philosophical differentiation, it has immediate and far-reaching consequences in everyday life.

And far-reaching consequences for education. By judging the success of our schools and teachers based on test scores, no matter how elegant the statistics applied to test scores, this judgement makes us see students and teachers and schools as exchangeable. We lump groups of people together under singular statistics and those statistics define everyone beneath them. A “failing school” is seen as nothing but that, despite the intense challenges it might face due to poverty in its attendance area, for example. A teacher could lose his job if his student test scores did not show adequate growth, even if it’s clear that on every other possible measure that he’s an excellent teacher (including a strong, positive, engaging classroom community where students love learning and are excelling in areas not measured by the state test).

But individual classrooms, individual teachers, and individual students are unique. When we do not treat them as such, we strip them of their dignity.

The article concludes with an application of the entire argument to the realm of medicine, but what is said here applies equally well to education:

We can now conclude our considerations by observing, that any health system has to take into account the great achievements of scientific rationality, otherwise it violates the right of human society for the best possible treatment of illnesses. On the other hand, if this health system restricts itself to the frame of scientific thinking (to scientific rationality), it violates human dignity! Therefore we reach the conclusion, that a health system, which sets out to be of benefit for human beings in their totality has to find a synthesis (or at least a balance) of these two seemingly contradictory poles.

Where’s our balance, our synthesis? I certainly do not see that now. I see a prominence of “scientific rationality” through testing of students at nearly every grade level every year, through pressure to evaluate teachers on student test scores, and through major changes in classroom instruction in schools where the stakes are so high that the school must focus on test scores at the cost of everything else.

I’ll wrap this up now by turning to something that I used to introduce my doctoral dissertation–a study that I wanted to contextualize as an important window into the unique landscape of the classroom among all the policy that lumps all classrooms under test score statistics. It’s a tidbit from de Certeau that Jan Nespor used in his compelling 1997 study that revealed the complexities inherent in one school community, Tangled Up in School:

de Certeau (1984) drew [a contrast] between experiencing a city from the top of a skyscraper and experiencing it from the “ground level,” as a pedestrian. On the street, he suggested, the tempos and rhythms of a walker, the detours, improvised routes, stops, conversations, and interactions “actualize the possibilities” of the formal city grid to create spaces of the body. The city is a multisensory bodily experience, not something consumed in a look, but something felt, smelled, heard, and tasted as well as seen. We grasp it not as a totality, but as an unfolding journey: The walkers’ “bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ without being able to read it” (p. 93). Instead of looking at the city as a representation, a map, walkers […] create spatialities by their paths and itineraries.
“From the top of a skyscraper, on the other hand, the city looks like a tableau in an abstract space, a “planned and readable” city (de Certeau, 1984, pp. 92-93). People appear as discrete, interchangeable objects moving through the terrain. One body looks much like another to the unaided eye. […] Along with passion and desire, the view from the top of the skyscraper ignores how activity is improvised and negotiated, how people’s acts are grounded in limited and partial perspectives that unfold and develop in time. It ignores, in short, the qualities of bodily experience that shape everyday life. In their place, still speaking metaphorically, the high-rise dweller focuses on a static landscape seen from a distant vantage point. And the more accustomed we become to looking at things from such a vantage point, the more inclined we are to think of them as if they really were just like static images. […] We begin to treat people, things, and activities as detached objects or visual tableaus to scrutinize and observe at a distance rather than as things to get close to, to become involved with. (pp. 121-122)

Let’s take what we can learn about education through the skyscraper view of  “scientific rationality” where we can see from above and across many students, teachers, schools, and classrooms as a static landscape. But we cannot let that view eclipse what we can learn about classrooms by remembering that they are not static; classrooms evolve and shift as humans interact and negotiate with one another.

We must remember that classrooms are peopled by unique individuals who deserve to be treated with dignity.

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One Response to Measuring Away Our Dignity

  1. Liz says:

    My mind’s been circling around similar issues lately. I’m trying to figure out what my diss study is going to look like, and I’m taking a complementary methods class in order to figure that out. In the class, we’re learning about experimental/quasi-experimental design, and I struggle so much to figure out how to even let scientific approaches enter into my conceptualization of teacher identity and agency precisely because it seems so dehumanizing. How can one study agency and identity in a way that dehumanizes participants? I’m growing more and more convinced that it’s not only not possible, but it’s unethical. I agree, there needs to be a balance, but I struggle against the side of me that’s just plain MAD about the politics of education right now — from large-scale funding of research that’s only experimental to basing teacher salaries and job security on “the subjectivities of students,” I find myself swinging hard in the other direction both emotionally and philosophically, trying to find a space to compromise with a paradigm that makes my stomach turn. How do we find the balance? How do we encourage it? Is this feat impossible, or as de Certeau argues, do we simply change the system through the small acts of art — walking on an unnamed street — that we enact in our daily lives as teachers?

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