Sunday, March 16, 2014

Inertia, Obedience, and Faith

This past week I proctored TCAP for the last time. Unfortunately, it was only the last time because the name and content of the test is changing next year. Long-time readers of this blog (both of you) will know I have a bias against testing anyway, so take this with a grain (or ten) of salt, but giving this year's test was even more deeply distressing than normal.

You see, while I have doubts of the efficacy of this test in any given year, this year was obviously a bit different in my school. Given the events of December 13th, and all that has gone on since then, I don't see any way these tests had any statistical validity or reliability. If that is indeed the case, then why give them?

To me, it boils down to a pretty simple question:
Is there anyone on the staff who honestly believes that the best use of our limited time with these students, this year, is spending it giving the TCAP? Or would it be better for them to be attending their regular classes, with their teachers and their peers, learning as part of the Warrior community?
(Keep in mind that freshmen and sophomores took the TCAP for about 10 hours over three days, juniors and seniors stayed home for that time, then we ran a shortened schedule of classes in the afternoon.) While it's certainly possible there might be a few folks that would answer in the affirmative (return to normalcy), I think the vast majority would not. So, again, why give them?

I think the answer lies in a combination of inertia, obedience, and faith. Inertia, because once testing is in motion it tends to stay in motion. Obedience, because folks "higher up" have decided we should do this, so we do. And faith, because even though many of us question the value, we have faith that somehow the system, or the people running it, have made (and will make) the best decisions for our students.

I question that last one. While there are certainly many, many people more knowledgeable than I am about teaching and learning, I'm not so sure there are many, many people who are currently making these decisions that are any more knowledgeable about the future than I am. That's not to say that I am knowledgeable about the future, I'm not. But neither are they, and so much of the justification for the Common Core and standardized testing rest upon assumptions that, at best, are partially accurate.

I've written before about the changing world of work. Yesterday I came across two separate articles that contest some of the assumptions so many folks are making. First, via Will Richardson, I came across this post from John Robb:
Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them. Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots). However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses. Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.

As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy. If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.

That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left. More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%. It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data). Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years.

Another catalyst will be economic crisis. With each successive crisis, there will an increased competition for the remaining economic scraps. This competition will force companies to use technology more aggressively as a replacement for workers. Economic crisis will also force bankrupt governments to radically reduce their expenditures. This shortfall will drive a willingness to bend regulations to adopt alternatives that provide significant benefit for a fraction of the cost, despite vocal opposition from existing interests.

This process is both inevitable and irreversible. Our world is being upended. Get ready.
This echoes some of what I wrote about previously in terms of the future of work. Is Robb right? I don't know. I suspect he is partially correct, and partially incorrect. I don't know if 1% is where we will really end up, but I think the trend he is pointing out is accurate. And I agree that it will happen much more quickly than when we transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

What does this have to do with TCAP or the Common Core? I think a better question is what do TCAP or the Common Core have to do with a future that looks like this?

The second article I came across discussed similar topics, although perhaps not with quite the same economic-Malthusian perspective. Richard Florida was recently interviewed on WGBH's Innovation Hub program. The entire podcast is 27 minutes and worth your time, but I'd particularly recommend the portion from about 18:30 to 21:37.

Florida doesn't see things quite as direly as Robb does. He feels that humans have always done a good job of adapting and creating new forms of work. But he also says,
What we're going to have to do as a society is create a new social contract. This is our choice. A new social contract which says we should probably work fewer hours, we should have a shorter work week, we should pay people more and we should engage more human beings more fully. But we're going to have to organize that society; the magic of the market and the magic of innovation isn't going to do that . . . [We have to have a conversation about] how do we build a new social contract that empowers and engages workers, creates a middle class, for this innovative economy.
So how do we build an education system that empowers and engages students, that allows them to create, and in turn creates innovators for this new economy?

Our world is being upended, yet our education system is being standardized; driven by inertia, obedience and faith. I guess I just don't have that much faith that TCAP or the Common Core are going to help us get where we need to go. And I'm beginning to wonder if we have the capability to overcome our own inertia and tendency to be obedient.


  1. My name is Mallory Harris. I am an EDM310 student at the University of South Alabama. I felt like you had some good points on why this test was taking valuable time away from your students and that your frustration was just. I think your articles back up your point entirely and your viewpoint on this topic was quite on point.

  2. I'm not sure it's inertia, obedience and faith. If it were inertia, I might expect to see things carry on as they are now. I wouldn't expect the acceleration of standardization unless an outside force was applied (legislation and profit motives). Sorry, I couldn't resist taking your Newon's First reference one step further. As for faith, do we have faith that the system, or people running it will do what's best for students, or is it that we have faith that the teachers and students will do the best they can with the hand they've been dealt? I believe it's the latter.

    I think I'd attribute it to arrogance, ignorance, and apathy. Arrogance of lawmakers to think that they know more about education than those who teach every day and believe that they can hold those teachers accountable through testing. Ignorance of those who support flawed policies blindly because the bill's authors have the right letter behind their name. And apathy by those who know it's not benefiting our kids, but don't take the time to get involved and work to change the path we're on. I'll add one other; fear. I think a lot of teachers would stand up and work to change the path we're on, but fear they'll compromise their jobs if they're too vocal.

    I'm probably splitting hairs on what it is that's driving the standardization, but I completely agree with the rest of your post.

  3. Hello,
    My name is Alyx Kellam and I am a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama, and I was assigned to comment on your blog this week. I really think you have some great points. I think education is kind of contradicting itself in a way. State tests are required, but it takes away from the time teachers are given to teach their students. Although this may be helpful, I don't agree that it is always helpful because students may have certain situations at home, and may not do their best testing on the day this test is given.