Reprise: A Philosophy of Baloney

[Time for another look at this posting of mine from a year ago.]

An old joke has it that when you mate a crocodile with an abalone you get a crock o’ baloney, but surely there must be other ways of producing it: how does such an abundance of baloney come to appear in the field of education? Why are so many educationists also balonists[1]?

One respected philosopher says that a balonist (not his word) is primarily concerned not with telling the truth but with promoting or protecting himself, or with keeping the boat he is on from being rocked. Such a person’s relationship with the truth is therefore accidental and opportunist; it yields truth claims that are phony. One current truth-tussle can illustrate.

Four professors, from Stanford, Cal Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, have been studying “value-added models” (VAMs) of evaluating teachers[2]. Here are just some of the results:

  1. At least seven factors other than the individual teacher figure in students’ success. These include home and community supports and challenges, peer culture and achievement, and of course the specific tests used to “measure” “achievement.”
  2. VAMs are inconsistent. Only 20% of teachers rated at the top or bottom of their district rankings retained those ratings in the following year, and when rated by different tests, 40 – 55% of teachers got “noticeably different scores.”
  3. Teachers’ value-added “performance” is affected by the students assigned to them. One set of figures documents the experience of an English teacher whose rating changed from the first (worst) to the tenth (best) decile from one year to the next. The change was attributable not to his sudden emergence from a vegetative state, but to the fact that his students in the second year numbered fewer English learners, Hispanic students, and low-income students and more students with well-educated parents.
  4. VAMs can’t disentangle these other factors influencing students’ (and “therefore” their teachers’) performance. Take for example an elementary school teacher who had been voted Teacher of the Month and Teacher of the Year in Houston, where her supervisor had rated her as “exceeding expectations.” She was fired as a result of her VAM scores, which showed wide fluctuations across and within subjects. These scores did not correct for her lower value-added in 4th grade, when English learners are mainstreamed in her school district. Take also the VAM scores of teachers that “flip-flopped when they exchanged assignments.” When such stories start to circulate, guess how many teachers will accept assignments to classes with disadvantaged students!

Other ways of evaluating teachers, discussed at length in this article and in passing in these postings, are available and have been shown to work. Why, then, do we see such reliance on VAMs?

One answer is in the nature of a balonist. If his primary purpose is to serve not truth but himself, he does not particularly care what the truth is. Another, in this case, is in the nature of this particular baloney. Though rank and gross in nature, it seems to simplify and explain so much, and to deflect blame so effectively from the balonists using it, that it is irresistible to them. Finally, it jibes with a public tendency to be satisfied with crude methods of identifying and punishing members of undesirable classes of people. A complex problem can be simplified. Villains can be “found” and eliminated. The phoniness of the baloney doesn’t matter. The balonists—say, a cabinet secretary or the superintendent of an urban school district—can be seen as “tackling problems” and “making tough decisions.” What could be more desirable, except the truth?


[1] This term, indispensable when talking about education, can be found in The Didact’s Dictionary. A balonist produces his own hybrid of humbug and b*******.

[2] “Evaluating Teacher Evaluation” by Linda Darling-Hammond et al., Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012. I thought this article well worth the five dollars it cost me to download it.

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