Quote of the Day: The Mismeasure of Man

Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is one of the best books available on the use and misuse of data. Given the obsessional focus on test data in education reform these days, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Gould’s work. A few pages into the introduction, I found this wonderful quote:

“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”

Anyone who has learned or taught in a school where test preparation dominates the curriculum has witnessed the stunting Gould writes about firsthand. Those who deny our students the opportunity to study music, art, foreign languages, and evolution deny them the opportunities to strive and hope. That these reformers claim this stunting is for the benefit of our students makes their crime all the more heinous. It recalls the reasoning of biological determinists (like those described and discredited in Gould’s book) who sought to use data to justify their own positions of social and political power.

Arne Duncan Might ‘Get It,’ But Do States?

Arne Duncan recently gave a speech in which he outlined a few targets of education reform that neatly align with our model of schools as ecosystems.

He spoke of the critical need for “wraparound” services, which — as any educator who has worked in a high needs school can attest — is essential. How can children learn when they are hungry, sick, or require glasses?

However, as The Crimson notes, “Duncan said that support services are not enough to bridge the achievement gap and that the quality of schools themselves must be improved.” This is a critical point, but one which needs to be much elucidated. How do we improve the quality of schools? What do we mean by quality?

If we view schools as ecosystems, the answers to these questions become clearer. We improve the quality of schools by fostering relationships and a culture of trust and respect. Quality schools are vibrant communities, rich with interconnections and opportunities and niches for learning.

In his speech, Duncan also succinctly pointed out a key facet in building such environments within schools: “Teacher evaluation should never, ever be based on test scores.”

Of course not. Because if we understand that schools are ecosystems, as opposed to knowledge manufacturing facilities, we know that evaluating children as products is detrimental to the development of a positive, sustainable school community that retains committed teachers and involves and engages parents.

That an influential figure such as Duncan is even talking in this way is a sign of hope. However, as one astute teacher, @KellyDillon1, tweeted in response:

If we’re not to eval teachers based on tests, why does [Race to the Top] push test-based accountability? #mixedsignals

Let’s see if Duncan can put his money where his mouth is and pressure states to focus on the more important necessity for positive school environments and the wraparound community support that he is espousing. And let’s help him deepen his rhetoric with an ecological lens that looks to sustainable growth for every school.