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Death by Algorithm

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I love teaching. I really believe teaching is a vocation and I have been called to be a teacher... I believe when you are a teacher it is a lifestyle, you may leave school at night, but your thoughts are always with your students and how to reach them and help them become the best they can be.

Sarah Wysocki, who wrote that statement in an email to me (and gave me permission to share it publicly), certainly sounds like the kind of young professional we hope will spend her life in teaching. She appears to be bright, personable, creative and deeply devoted to the success of her students.

And she was fired by the D.C. Public Schools.

Sarah's career in our city schools suffered death by algorithm. Washington Post Education Reporter Bill Turque wrote about this sad and deeply frustrating story. Sarah was ending just her second year of teaching, and by all accounts, she was developing nicely, getting high marks on her observations. But along came the deadly algorithm, the tyrannical machine built by consultants who believe that data is more important and more reliable than the human eye, heart or brain.

Sarah's students scored lower than predicted on the "value-added" tests of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system that D.C. adopted in its relentless quest to reform the schools. Many wiser heads than mine have exposed the significant problems with this methodology. But if there's one thing that D.C. does not lack these days, it's consultants, and the consultants have insisted that what Turque calls the "remorseless algorithm" will ensure that more children will learn at higher levels because the algorithms will drive bad teachers from the schools, probably with cow bells tied to their necks and possibly with feathers sticking to tar on their backs.

If the kids can't satisfy the algorithm, let's blame all the teachers.

If anything, my time in D.C. has strengthened by love of teaching because everyday I had to make a decision to work through difficult circumstances...

More than one-third of adult residents of the District of Columbia are functionally illiterate according to the city's own studies. That means that we have a very large group of parents who cannot read to their children. Among the states, D.C. has the highest poverty rate and the highest rate of child hunger at 32 percent. These same children suffer the consequences of teen pregnancy, very young single mothers, chronic untreated health problems and constant scenes of neighborhood violence.

But let's fire their teachers if the kids can't beat the algorithms developed by the consultants in their tidy offices that are frequently located in other places. The consultants assure us that the algorithms can't lie, and that they take violence, hunger, illiteracy and sheer perversity into account.

Not being a statistician, I had to refresh my understanding of the meaning of "algorithm" and here's what Wikipedia tells me:

an algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list [1] of well-defined instructions [2] for calculating a function. [3] Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps empty), [4] the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, will proceed through a finite [5] number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing 'output.'


Well, OK! Now I understand. An algorithm is an automatic way to determine results. No need to have those pesky human factors like judgment, emotion, discernment, understanding, empathy, sympathy, critical reasoning involved.

Sarah Wysocki is working on her master's degree in teaching at Trinity, but I did not know her before reading about her in the Washington Post. I contacted her to find out more about why she chose to become a teacher:

"Teaching chose me," she wrote in an email.

I grew up in the middle of nine children so I was always being taught and teaching things. When I was younger I was heavily involved in sports and that naturally led me to coaching. As I grew older my love of sports was replaced by a love for nature and I began to teach environmental education in the northwest. I was involved in alternative education for many years when a few years ago I received a fellowship that allowed me to have my own class and help pay for my master's degree. I was beyond thrilled to have this opportunity.

Isn't that the kind of zest for teaching we need so much in our city schools?

I've been in the education business for more than three decades, and I know a little something about teacher quality issues. When I was in law school at Georgetown, I had my first encounter with the D.C. Public Schools when I taught a class in Street Law at Coolidge High. I can well remember the grizzled classroom teacher telling me and my partner Brad to stop being so enthusiastic, to hang back a little more, to temper our joy with the reality of dealing with problem children every day. We ignored her cynical advice and looked forward to every single class. Later on, when I became the director of the Street Law program after law school, I met and worked with teachers in the high schools all over town, and came to know the many great ones and the several absolutely burned out hulks who needed to move on. I didn't need an algorithm for that.

Sarah Wysocki does not appear to be like the burned-out teachers who needed to leave a long time ago. She does not seem to be incompetent, lazy, irresponsible or dishonest, clear reasons why a teacher should be fired promptly. Sure, there may be other factors that the newspaper article did not reveal, but I can only go on the public record. Sarah's story sets off loud alarms about the harmful consequences of favoring the "remorseless algorithm" over human judgment.

Perhaps the low scores of her students do indicate a need for her to receive more coaching and some additional training. Who among us, in our second year of professional employment, got it right all the time? Dare I say that some of us in our 35th year of employment sometimes don't get it right? If every employer fired every young employee when the results disappointed the boss, the American workforce would be quite small, indeed. Imagine the unemployment lines then!

Perhaps the low scores of her students indicate other kinds of problems outside of her control. Perhaps the issues of neighborhoods, families, poverty and health have something to do with those scores. Perhaps the cheating scandal in the D.C. Public Schools, as the story suggested, had something to do with the results. Algorithms don't lie, but people do.

As Trinity's president, I have direct experience with the consequences of abysmal schools and bad teachers. Nearly half of Trinity's students come from the D.C. Public Schools, and while we are proud to serve our city as well as we do, it's no secret that these students face a real uphill battle in college cause their preparation is so weak. Some of that is a result of bad teachers, yes, but much of it is a result of a pervasive and systemic failure of the community, schools and families together. And let's not underestimate the effects of chronic, historic racism, illustrated quite well in a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights report released just this past week.

Understanding and experiencing the issues of teacher quality and the need for school reform as I do, I'm all in favor of doing what is necessary and possible to improve educational outcomes in D.C., including expecting teachers to do a great job.

But, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Sarah Wysocki is now teaching in Fairfax County.

Something utterly perverse is going on in the name of school reform in D.C. Good and even possibly great people are being crushed, careers wrecked under the weight of the deadly algorithm. To suggest that this methodology might be flawed incurs the wrath of the wonks who worship at the altar of data. To ask whether some of the tens of millions of philanthropic dollars devoted to school reform might be spent on direct services for children and families, rather than consulting contracts for the data mavens, is to invite ridicule and contemptuous dismissal that I must be a stooge for the unions. I've been told that to suggest that poverty might have something to do with reading scores is racist, a response that certainly shuts down all reasonable conversation about educational failure. Let's blame the teachers, because fixing social conditions is just, well, impossible to imagine, to say nothing of politically incorrect in today's righteous climate.

I asked Sarah Wysocki what advice she could give me as we think about how to better prepare our students at Trinity who think they want to be teachers. How can we help them to cope effectively and successfully when they enter careers where their passion and devotion counts for almost nothing, where they will be assessed by algorithm?

I wish I had some good advice, but I'm not sure I do... What I can say is: Do the best you can and love what you do. Find people who share your passion and know your struggles because they will lighten your load when things get heavy.

Find people who can help you out. Work in a system that understands how to support, encourage, nurture and celebrate the people who so willingly choose to devote their joy, their talent, their passion, their lives to teaching children. Teaching is not a mechanistic process at all; teaching demands the entire engagement of the human person -- mind, heart, soul -- with the struggles and fears, hopes and dreams, family conditions and community contexts of each student in the room. Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in all of human endeavor. We need assessment methods and school leaders who understand and respect this, and who celebrate the people who dare to teach.

Trinity is in the business of educating people who desire to become teachers. I am increasingly wondering how we can persuade gifted young students to consider teaching in public schools. I can think of few other professions where the current environment is so harsh, the risks to professional reputation are so large, the potential rewards so tentative. Talented young professionals can easily find teaching jobs outside of the public school systems, and most are versatile enough to find other careers entirely.

If the school reformers truly believe that teachers are the key to the success of children -- and I agree, they certainly are one of the keys -- then the reformers must reconsider the mindless application of the deadly algorithm.

Algorithms can't teach, they can only kill teachers.