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Education Policy Today: The Death of Gestalt, the Rise of Data and Why W.E. Deming is Turning Over in His Grave

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" ... it is almost impossible to read about educational reform in the dominant media except as a tool to educate people for the workforce... In other words, education is a form of commerce and nothing more. " -- Henry Giroux

Not so long ago, one of the premier educational organizations in the U.S., The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), heralded the year of the "whole child." The whole child platform presents arguments for promoting a healthy lifestyle, creating an environment that is physically and emotionally safe, strengthening connections with the broader community, accessing personalized learning, and providing experiences for college and employment/participation in the global environment. In short, the premise is that education should be broad, deep and personal.

Considering a perspective for educators to view children as more than the sum of their parts, seeing a learner as a developing entity (and not easily measurable at any given stage of development), understanding that children are multi-faceted and multi-talented -- i.e., a "gestalt" view of education -- is anathema to today's education policy makers who are governed by market-driven analytics. The "whole child" concept has been devoured by federal and state policies that are anything but focused on the whole.

After almost 14 years of the one-two punch of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the educational landscape is strewn with the fragments of children's lives as learners, shards that have been tagged, measured and discarded. A few examples are illustrative.

  • Terms in the standardized testing lexicon such as "dosage," the ludicrous notion that a teacher's worth can be measured by the amount of knowledge poured into a child's head over a specified amount of time
  • Obscene rules such as no questions allowed when students are taking a standardized test - lest the data be corrupted
  • Timed reading tests which relegate the magic and beauty of language to multiple choice/right-wrong answers
  • Published rankings of how districts, schools and teachers perform on tests, replete with categories of failure and warnings of consequences
  • Pre- tests, post-tests, field tests
  • Local tests, national tests, and even... international tests

Yes, testing gone global. The remarkable lack of sound judgment about education policy is, in part, due to the global data contests that are borne of the international tests (PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, etc .) that have elevated test score results to the same level of public concern as a country's defense capability or economic forecast. This, despite the fact that the international tests have been shown to be fundamentally flawed, researchers discovering egregious errors in sampling, measurement and interpretation. Still, the international test results make headlines every time, countries eager to see how they do in the rankings sweepstakes.

We are data-obsessed, seduced by the simplicity of ranked numbers, participating in ranking self-mutilation. Incapable of comprehending the complexity and fluidity of the teaching/learning process, we grasp for anything that has the appearance of solidity, even if it is painful.

This obsession with separating learning into parts, assessing it, and believing that the resulting data is meaningful has come under fire from unlikely quarters. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, hardly liberal leaning in his opinions, had many things to say about data's limitations in a column in which he advises that people are more reliable sources of information than data in some important areas. Brooks opines:

  • Data struggles with the social (people are really good at mirroring each other's emotional states, at detecting uncooperative behavior and at assigning value to things through emotion);
  • Data struggles with context (people are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts);
  • Data creates bigger haystacks (as we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we're trying to understand a situation);
  • Data obscures values (it is always structured according to somebody's predispositions and values).

Those of us who have witnessed the decline of people and the rise of data for decision making in education could use Brooks' opinions as a manifesto for reversing the course of the last decade and a half of education policy.

The business community also weighs in on the subject via the work of Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline, arguably the most important book about organizational behavior to appear in the last 25 years. In the introduction to the 2006 edition Senge discusses the work of W.E. Deming, the brilliant statistician/management guru, certainly someone who understood data and its uses. After WW II, Deming helped Japan become a modern marvel of innovative, high-quality products which created its economic power. He is also credited with spawning a whole generation of organizational behavior experts who could spot genius in policy and management when they saw it.

After Deming's death, Senge met with a group of colleagues to distill Deming's beliefs about what ails management systems, systems that Deming believed have "destroyed our people."

Herewith are the ingredients of toxic management:

  • Management by measurement (focusing on short-term metrics and devaluing intangibles - "You can only measure 3 percent of what matters" - W.E. Deming);
  • Compliance-based cultures (getting ahead by pleasing the boss; management by fear);
  • Managing outcomes (management sets targets; people are held accountable for meeting management targets regardless of whether they are possible within existing systems and processes);
  • "Right answers" vs. "wrong answers" (technical problem solving is emphasized; diverging, systemic problems are discounted);
  • Uniformity (diversity is a problem to be solved; conflict is suppressed in favor of superficial agreement);
  • Predictability and controllability (to manage is to control; the "holy trinity of management" is planning, organizing, controlling);
  • Excessive competitiveness and distrust (competition between people is essential to achieve desired performance; without competition among people there is no innovation);
  • Loss of the whole (fragmentation; local innovations do not spread)

How eerily familiar are Deming's complaints to the drumbeat that concerned educators have been pounding since the inception of data-driven education policy that threatens to "destroy our schools."

The manifesto grows.

If Giroux is right -- and education has become just another form of commerce -- then we are on the right track. We sort, select, measure and rank our students at unprecedented levels, turning our schools into data factories.

If, on the other hand, education is something more, something about exploring our imaginations for a new future with regard for the whole experience of learning, then we are in deep trouble in our schools.

I only wish Dr. Deming were around for comment.