Look Behind the Numbers

This week’s material will at first seem disparate, but the theme connecting all of it is that we must look behind the numbers.

The lesson of the first story is that such stories may leave out important material, and that sometimes this material runs counter to what has been included. We read  that teachers are second highest in well-being of all jobholders, exceeded only by physicians. Those who have read Diane Ravitch’s claim[1] that the average teacher lasts under five years and that the modal year[2] of the profession is the end of year 1 must wonder why members of a profession so blessed run away from it in such numbers that the steam-shovels of Teach for America are barely sufficient to fill the breach. It turns out that the very survey that supplied this “information” has more, rather more, to say. As against “well-being,” teachers surveyed turned out to be dead last in ratings given their working environment and in particular their relationship with their supervisors: it seems that an all-too-common figure in the School Office is the Beast from the East. That may explain why teachers’ stress levels are the second highest of any profession, according to this same survey. The obvious question one has of such seemingly contradictory data is how a group of people who are treated badly and stressfully can also have well-being. The answer appears to be in teachers’ capacity for protective detachment from their work environment: less than a third of all teachers are “engaged” with their work, the rest evidently being highly detached. The news story incompletely reporting this survey seemed to find it a proof that teachers are not the suffering masses of legend, but a more complete look at the numbers tells a rather different story: To protect their personal well-being from the depredations of the workplace, a majority of teachers cultivate detachment and disengagement from a dysfunctional professional environment.

The survey actually portrays a dire situation because the strongest correlate of student engagement is teacher engagement. Students can tell if their teachers are on auto-pilot, and they respond by disengaging themselves from what is to be learned. If teachers are protecting the well-being of some “core self” that they see as different from or outside their professional lives, it is no recommendation of the quality of those professional lives. On-line lessons will end up producing the same results, their mechanism mimicking human disengagement. No one will be fooled when a screen says “Way to Go!” after a right answer.

Unfortunately, when a screen says “6/6 for your writing,” some people will be fooled into thinking that the software behind the screen has actually graded the writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Software for grading writing is made with a shovel-load of questionable proxy values in place of actual understanding. This is how Les Perelman of MIT could have produced the famous baloney-feast that received a perfect score from a program for grading writing.  Behind the number lies a vacancy of understanding. It may be appealing to a professor to think that he can have a break from grading, but the professor must not be fooled, or go along with foolery. By contrast, Professor Barzun, with his grim “news” that teachers must “work like dogs,” has the right of it. And it is subtle, non-machinable work. Sorry, Professor: please roll up you sleeves, fill your red pen, and get down to it.

The last case for looking behind the numbers takes us to Ralph J. Bunche High School in West Oakland, 90% of whose students have had trouble with the juvenile justice system or lived in foster homes. The program reported in this story teaches the students at Bunche High how to build or restore right-minded human relationships and to instill a sense of justice behind what they do. One adjunct professor of law notes that this will be a “multiyear endeavor.” In that she speaks a truth at odds with baloney betterment programs like RAT and VAM (RAce to the Top and Value Added Metrics) and their annualized nonsense. Many of the students at Bunche have some very basic things to learn—things not captured in the numbers of “Value”-“Added” “Learning.” If Jameelah Garry has learned not to slug her classmates when she dislikes their clothing, and if she has learned to confide her griefs in others rather than acting them out in anger, then she has learned something very important. If her teachers have been there for her but were to receive “ineffective” ratings because girls like her are not academic fireballs, a grave injustice would be done.


[1] Reported in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

[2] The year of experience at which the number of those with more experience equals the number with less

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