Questioned assumptions #2: Quantifying people for best results

How often a reasonable idea can become a bad one, depending on the company it keeps! Examples are everywhere, and they are at least as common in education as other aspects of society. I have come to the conclusion that the increasing insistence upon quantitative accountability is a prime example. When someone asks me “Don’t we have to know how well we’re doing?” I have to answer “Yes, that seems like a good idea.”  Used pedagogically (that is, to support student growth), information about what a student knows and can do can give a teacher some help in reflecting about next steps.  Teachers know that no one measure gives enough information about a student on its own.   So it’s generally wise to have several ways of looking at a complex question — data from performances (e.g. project work), classroom observations, written tests, and more.  Each has limitations, so the combination provides more than additive understanding.

Yet the idea of “evaluation” in education quickly gets combined with ideas of control (in the guise of governance), social engineering, and education as an essentially economic activity. All this data collection has consequences whose benefits are hard to see, given the potential — and real — costs. While better information should enable better decisions, this is not always true, especially when we hardly understand the data we’ve collected.   In any case, the dictates of efficiency militate in favor of using fewer and fewer metrics, to simplify decision-making, regardless of how much information is ignored in the process.

A recent exhibit (see Anthony Cody at “Living in Dialogue”  here): Genetic data possibly relating to personality traits as the basis for educational decisions.   Cody comments on a New York Times article by Jay Belsky, who is reflecting on the ethical issues opened up by genetic research in this area.  The key pull quote from Belsky:  “One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers. Not only because they would improve the most, but also because they would suffer the most from lower quality instruction. The less susceptible — and more resilient — children are more likely to do O.K. no matter what.”

So here we have some emergent (and therefore highly tentative) science already paired (in one person’s mind, at least) with decisions about resource allocations.  In a political economy where education (like other aspects of social life) is increasingly commodified, it makes obvious sense to increasingly differentiate the subjects (children), who are both recipients of “services” (themselves commercial transactions) and products of a system to be optimized for efficiency.  As Belsky writes, “Those who value equity over efficacy will object to the notion of treating children differently because of their genes. But if we get to the point where we can identify those more and less likely to benefit from a costly intervention with reasonable confidence, why shouldn’t we do this? What is ethical, after all, about providing services to individuals for whom we believe they will not prove effective, especially when spending taxpayers’ money?”

Belsky is apparently struggling with the ethics here, and deserves credit for naming and engaging with a kind of problem that will only become more pressing as various lines of research in biology and psychology gain momentum.  Cody (clearly coming down on the “equity” side as against “efficiency”) raises the alarm about this whole line of approach as being a veiled eugenics .

Though I am sympathetic to that concern, my own “equity” vote is cast for somewhat different reasons.  Belsky’s “modest proposal” raises several topics of concern to educators and the general public, including the uses of research, the romance of the gene, the politics of measurement, and life in a technocracy.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll return to these issues one by one, as I try to unpack for myself why I find this Cody-Belsky pairing so interesting and provocative.   Did you see Belsky’s article, or Cody’s blog post?  What do you think?


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