12/20/2010 07:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Knowing What You Don't Know

It's another one of those first-meetings I have a lot recently. I'm sitting in a bar/grill/café/I-don't-know-what-but-don't-care-as-long-as-they-serve-beer-place, across from someone who "works in education," but not really. Everybody "works in education" now, but few people want to actually work in education anymore, and I understand. Teaching is freakin' crazy these days.

The establishment is a local joint with odd, schizophrenic décor. The old "bones" of the structure -- the building itself, and the built-in furnishings -- are sloppily updated, and they mix uncomfortably with new things... that are supposed to look older and more established than they are. I try to ignore this as I exchange pleasantries with my charming new friend, who wanted to meet in order to "bridge our differences" regarding ed reform.

I enjoy meetings like this, but I dread them a little, too. I'm no stranger to different points of view, moving in and out of different social worlds as frequently as I do. I enjoy debate, too. But this one has such serious consequences. It's hard, sometimes, dealing with people who approach this so theoretically, when you still dream about your students' faces... and only recently stopped vomiting when forced to deal with the so-called "professionals" at the central office.

I mull over our contrasting perspectives while he explains his interest in education. He speaks in slogans and buzzwords, which raises my hackles a bit. Sort of a Pavlovian response, I guess; for public school teachers, slogans and buzzwords correlate almost perfectly with the number forms you're responsible for filling out.

I take a deep swig of my beer. I have no poker face. Wide-mouthed pints are really helpful for disguising the kind of amused annoyance currently scrunching my nose and cheeks closer to my eyes. At least, I hope they are.

"We agree on a lot," he says. "And given that we now know all kids can learn, the issue is mainly, how do we make teachers and schools accountable for that?"

There ain't enough lager in the world. Funny how he assumes teachers and schools have everything they need to do a great job, but just aren't for whatever reason. And 'we now know?' That's only news to you and your skiing buddies! Everyone else has known that for quite some time. That's why people struggled and died for equal access and opportunity, promises society hasn't fully kept. I swig on, trying to figure out how to craft a response that's more "teachable moment" than tirade. It may not be possible right now.

I feel my eyes narrow. "What makes you think teachers and schools don't already hold themselves accountable?" I ask. I always wonder what these "accountability" hawks are thinking when they say things like this. Do they imagine that people go into education to deliberately fail children? That we're all so stupid that we don't think to monitor whether students are better off now than they were the first day of school?

"Well, given the data, we know that the schools are failing. Someone has to be accountable for that..." He quotes test score Data, graduation rates; stats I've heard ad nauseam. Another swig, then I hold up my hand. He stops talking, and I start.

"Let me ask you a question. Pretend you're a doctor. If we took my temperature, and the thermometer said it was a little over 100 degrees, what would you know about me?"

"I'd know you were sick," he responds, his face a mixture of "what's this about?" and "What a stupid question!"

"Wrong. You'd know my temperature was different from the expected 98.6 degrees," I say, his face dropping at the sound of "wrong." I continue. "There could be many reasons for that. I could be ovulating (his face goes completely pale), I could be pregnant, I could have just finished a strenuous workout. Maybe I just drank a cup of hot tea before I put the thermometer in my mouth. Maybe the thermometer's broken, and my temperature really is 98 degrees."

"Or maybe you're getting sick!" he interjects.

"Yes, or I might be sick. But the number alone can't tell you that. You need a lot more information before you can come to an accurate conclusion."

His face looks a little confused now, and annoyed. "What does this have to do with anything?"

"Well, a thermometer is a direct way to measure temperature. Yet even then, you don't know everything you need to know in order to figure out what to do about it. You'd have to ask me about other symptoms, look for other information."

He still looks lost. "A moment ago, you quoted bunch of achievement Data, pulled from measures far less direct than the thermometer. You said those statistics are how you know that schools are failing, and that teachers and schools need to be more accountable." His face twists as I ask, "How can you be so sure you know what's wrong?"

He sputters, incredulous that I would doubt him or the sacred Data. "Because..." He looks up, searching for the words. My gut tells me he's never felt it necessary to say, "I don't know," or "I never thought of that..." I finish my glass, thinking how nice it must be, to live in a world where the way you think, the way you see things, are constantly validated. I'm sure he's never stopped to ask what those numbers mean, where they come from, who decides, or what they can't tell him.

He never answers my question, saying we'll probably have to "agree to disagree on the testing thing." I'm not comfortable with that. "If you can't even answer my question, how can you be comfortable with teachers losing their jobs, or schools closing, on the basis of that information? These are people's lives, you know."

He stares at me, then flags down the waitress and orders another round.