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Objective Nonsense

Much mischief would vanish from educational discourse if the terms objective and subjective vanished first. Since that happy consummation is unlikely to take place, we must be careful how we use them. Currently, usage seems to coalesce along a continuum, on which the “subjective” side is the side of judgment, opinion, emotion, evaluation, flightiness, and interiority, while “objective” refers to measurement, fact, rationality, disinterestedness, groundedness, and consensus.

A moment’s thought will show us that this continuum is not very clear or very helpful. For example, many of us profess the value of statistical significance in scientific studies. Fine, but the .5 level of statistical significance as a gold standard for data is an entirely arbitrary construct—a subjective construct, if you will. I don’t mean to downgrade the validity of the concept of statistical significance, but to suggest that the usual subjective/objective=bad/good opposition is not a very helpful way of analyzing its value. The same goes for “value”-“added” “metrics,” whose sometimes huge “margin of error” is simply ignored by the people using the statistics as a way of evaluating teachers. One case highlighted a teacher whose “metrics,” when taken with the needed caution about margin of error, showed that she might be the worst teacher in New York—or better than half of them. Partisans of the idea that numbers confer precision were not even discomfited by such results: they simply ignored margin of error in using VAMs. Sounds rather arbitrary and flighty to me.

When The New York Times reports that “subjective” evaluations of teachers don’t work in Texas, one must turn over the story a bit to see that the real problem is not “subjectivity.” That is a red herring. The real problem is twofold.  Evaluators who are trapped in their offices by balls & chains of paperwork, or who stay there by choice in regal disdain of teachers, are unwilling or unable to get out to the classrooms very often. One solution would be peer evaluation. Another would be to cut the burden of administrative paperwork.Implementing such solutions has nothing to do with replacing “subjectivity” by  “objectivity;” rather, it requires replacing an inadequate and arbitrary system of judgment by an adequate one well grounded in good sense. The solution would also require people who see a spade to call it a spade. Gwendolyn Fairfax’s superb dodge won’t do[1].

The honest art of judgment lacks the magical appeal of numbers and formulae, but it allows—requires—the people using it to look each other in the eye and themselves in the mirror. That is not a question of objectivity vs. subjectivity; it is a question of intellectual and moral courage.



[1] In The Importance of Being Earnest: GWENDOLYN (satirically). I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.

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