Cuomo Doubles Down on Linear Thinking

“The dunes here are linear, thought to be due to shifting wind directions.”

New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has decided to double down on a misguided effort to increase the weight of state assessments in a teacher’s evaluation from 20% to 50%.

I’m going to spare you the “corporate reform” and “hedge fund buddies” angle on this; instead, I contend that this single-minded focus on test scores is simply bad strategy.

The focus of this blog has been on teasing out the metaphor of a school as an ecosystem, and elaborating on the theme that managing complex systems requires moving beyond linear thinking.

Here’s a relevant quote from Steve Denning (which we’ve examined before) on the principle of obliquity:

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

What would be the opposite of what was intended in this situation (if Cuomo gets his way)? Well, if every teacher in the state is conscious that their evaluation is heavily determined by their student’s performance on that state test — then the problems of focusing mostly on ELA and math and shallow skills-driven test-prep will most likely be exacerbated. And kids that most need access to rich literature and knowledge across the domains of history, music, arts, science, and technology will instead continue to be given drivel. And teachers and schools may be more likely to engage in cheating.

I generally assume best intent when assessing the decisions of others. So to be fair to Cuomo, he is pushing for a simplified accountability system because the current system of 20% state, 20% local, and 60% principal observation may lead to the problems of over-testing and inflated scores.

But moving to increase the weight of the state test scores as a leverage over teachers is not the right move to resolve these issues. Instead, this maneuver is much more likely to compound deeper issues, rather than achieve the goal of increasing student and teacher performance.

It would be great if our elected representatives could move beyond linear models when making critical decisions on how to improve our system of education.

Unnatural Selection: Darwin and the Business Model

I’ve been thinking about natural selection lately. If schools are ecosystems and students are the species occupying those ecosystems, these student species must be constantly adapting to meet the demands of their environments. Eventually, some of these adaptations must harden into character traits, and these character traits, developed in response to school environments, must form some part of a student’s adult identity.

In a school based on our ecosystems model, we would hope to create an environment where successful adaptations might include taking intellectual risks, supporting one’s peers, pursuing long-term projects, and contributing to the school community outside the classroom. In the end, such adaptations would help students develop into adults who are well rounded, thoughtful, open to new experiences, and compassionate towards others.

Unfortunately, our schools are led by reformers who believe that a corporate model, rather than an ecosystems model, will produce the healthiest adults. What sorts of values do these reformers promote? As The New York Times recently reported, David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core Standards, articulated the business reformers’ values quite clearly last year:

“In progressive education circles, Mr. Coleman is often criticized for his emphasis on ‘informational texts’ over fiction, and his push for students to write fewer personal and opinion pieces. Last year, he gave a speech making that point in strong terms, asserting that it would be rare, in the working world, for someone to say, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

Under the corporate model, an account of one’s childhood is superfluous fluff, while a market analysis is a text of value. Let’s look at the skills required to produce these two types of texts.

To write a “compelling” account of one’s childhood, a writer must first engage in thoughtful, critical reflection. The writer must identify themes that run like threads throughout the events of their childhood, and must convey these themes to the reader. Using imagery, metaphor, and a variety of other literary devices, the writer must evoke the world of their childhood for the reader, allowing the reader to visualize, empathize, and ultimately experience that world vicariously. Finally, the writer must edit and proofread vigorously, with an eye for both minute detail and broader meaning. The writer’s goal is to share an experience with the reader, to guide the reader through that experience, and to help the reader learn from that experience.

Now, I’ve never written a market analysis, so I did a bit of research to find out what that process requires. Apparently, a market analysis is a text of such complexity and sophistication that it’s written every time someone has a proposal for a new business. Thankfully, unlike with compelling memoirs, the folks at about.com were able to break down the process of writing a market analysis step by step. Here’s are the highlights:

“To define your target market, you need to ask the specific questions that are directly related to your products or services. For instance, if you plan to sell computer-related services, you need to know things such as how many computers your prospective customer owns. If you plan on selling garden furniture and accessories, you need to know what kinds of garden furniture or accessories your potential customers have bought in the past, and how often…

You’ll write the Market Analysis in the form of several short paragraphs. Use appropriate headings for each paragraph. If you have several target markets, you may want to number each.

Remember to properly cite your sources of information within the body of your Market Analysis as you write it. You and other readers of your business plan will need to know the sources of the statistics or opinions that you’ve gathered from others.”

In other words, a market analysis involves doing research on what sort of things different types of people like to buy, putting that information into paragraphs (which you may or may not label with numbers), and citing your sources. Oh, and the purpose of this text? To convince investors to give the writer money.

To be honest, I think Coleman’s crazy for preferring this type of reading to a good memoir. Then again, the business model is a bit crazy. Literally. As The Week reported a few months ago, the business world is “full of psychopaths.” Specifically, according to the CFA Institute (“a global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence), one out of every ten Wall Street employees “is a clinical psychopath…compared with one out of 100 people in the general population.” The CFA report describes these “financial psychopaths” as people who “generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think,” and who possess an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

What does all this have to do with our students? Well, when folks like Coleman argue that schools should be promoting the skills and values of the corporate world, they’re talking about a world that’s disproportionately composed of psychopaths. Instead of healthy participants in sustainable communities, reformers like Coleman want schools to produce adults who are incapable of empathy, but skilled at writing market analyses.

Am I being too harsh on the business reformers? Here’s Mayor Bloomberg, champion of the business model, describing the methods he used to achieve success (I’ve added the bold):

“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn some office or electrocute ourselves.”

You can judge for yourselves, but running electrical cables through a firetrap littered with rat feces in violation of health, safety, and legal regulations for the sake of personal financial gain sounds pretty nuts to me.

In a school system run by people who hold these values, students who display kindness, generosity, or any of the other fluffy virtues that generally fall under the umbrella of “goodness” will be failing to reach the standards. As our schools fall increasingly under the sway of these corporate reformers, is it any wonder that cheating scandals are on the rise? Students, teachers, and administrators are simply adapting to their values of their new, corporate-minded environments. It’s unnatural selection: survival of the sickest.