What’s a Fact? And who can we/should we trust?

Dear readers.  Even if this is far too long for a blog—2000 plus words!–please, if you read it, respond.

The number one “habit of mind” that we based our work at Mission Hill, Central Park East schools on:  “how do we know what we know and how credible is it?”  With all the education talk about “evidence-based” and “data driven” reform you’d think we’d stop for a moment and ask ourselves how much school evidence/data we can truly count on?  Or even scarier—how do we know anything beyond our first-hand knowledge?

I just finished reading a blog by Diane Ravitch about Geoffrey Canada’s work in Harlem which, in turn, is based on a blog by Gary Rubenstein. Rubenstein gives facts and figures to  (1) prove Canada’s proclaimed graduation rates aren’t honest, (2) show that Canada’s success depends heavily on the incredible fiscal resources he has access to,  3) remind us that Canada built his rep without acknowledging that he kicked out two entire classes because they didn’t get good test scores, and (4) that he denies all the above.

But in a field in which I know a lot I no longer believe anyone’s data; thus  exposing Canada hardly matters!  Not even my own “facts”l  sometimes I don’t convince even me!  I know too much about my own temptation to pick and choose evidence that confirms my beliefs to assume that my allies—and enemies– aren’t similarly influenced.  At any one moment the temptation to lie, fudge or obscure negative data can be either trivial or critical. The higher the stakes that rely on the data the greater the temptation—like e.g. bonuses, reputation, livelihood, jail– to look for the best and hide the worst.  The GAO claims that 33 states cheat, but I believe it relies on an old-fashioned rule—no explicit prepping for a specific test.

So I wonder, is my nostalgia for a time when I “believed” most  “facts” just that—false memory?  Or even worse, stupidness on my part?  I suspect some of it was stupid and some naivete.  After all, I long ago noticed that the NY Times never got a story quite right if it was one I happened to know a lot about—where I was there, for example.  But I still kept/keep, sort of,  believing all the information they offer on what I don’t know much about.

I remember an anarchist friend of mine disputing my claim that people were living longer today than they had a hundred years earlier.  When asked why I believed it, I mentioned as one example, census data.  He lashed into me about my naiveté in believing government-sponsored data.  I felt sorry for him because how can one cope with a world where you cannot know who and what is “a fact”.  It surely makes even flawed democracy a utopian dream.

I’m in his boat now, and it feels awful.

Close to home, for example, I know how easy it is to fudge graduation data, drop-out data, class-size data, attendance data, GPA averages, test scores, and on and on.  I’ve even dabbled in a few of these myself.   It’s hard to get caught—unless someone is really after you or you’ve let too many people in on the secret.

Therefore should we stop collecting the stuff?  Maybe.  At least I feel comfortable saying we (1) shouldn’t be collecting new stuff with high stakes attached, and (2) should remain very skeptical—especially if, on the basis of ones personal knowledge, the data seems miraculous or peculiar.

I used to carefully scan the ranked test score reports in the NY Times.  (It began in the 1960s).  Schools were ranked in order of scores, and the story indicated both this year’s scores and last year’s.  What I soon noticed were occasional great leaps or declines—which seemed unlikely if we were actually comparing oranges to oranges.  Either something happened—such as the school having suddenly become the site of the District’s gifted program, or a new principal was no longer inflating scores as his/her predecessor did.  (She/he may not have even known they were inflated.)  I checked some and it confirmed my suspicions.  Others I had no way to confirm or deny.  Similarly, years ago I witnessed an enormous rise in attendance in our high schools following a new chancellor’s demand that we focus on attendance (“they can’t learn if they’re not there.”)  Until I realized we had simultaneously, and not secretly, changed the class period when attendance was officially taken—from first to third, I believe.

Drop-out figures?  They are hard to count and aren’t simply the difference between the number of 8th graders vs 10th or 9th vs 12th.   (Although big discrepancies in either requires some explaining.)   After all, kids leave one school for another—some of which can be verified, some not.  After all,  families move to other cities, states and countries.  Also some can be accounted for by hold-overs unless one looks into the 5 and 6 year graduating rate.  We’d need a team of detectives per school to follow-up and even then it’s problematic how much they could discover.  Except for rare drop-in visits to count a random sample of classes we are pretending schools are telling the truth.  Maybe there are more honest principals out there than one might think.  But even the few who are more careless, let’s say, are rarely “accused.”  Both the cost and the morale impact of being continually inspected for the truth would be beyond immense.  (Store-keepers, bankers, you name it  have reached the same conclusion and have invented annoying ways to keep “us” honest, but not themselves).

I could go on and on.  Every time we institute a new policy to catch wrong-doers most of us act just like our students, we put our minds to new ways to get around the new rules.  The last fiscal crisis being a good example.  It’s easier than improving the school  (economy) in ways that will show up on high stakes rank-order lists.

A wonderful friend of mine (and of many other school people) ran a high school that took all the kids others wanted to get rid of.  He never said “no” if there was a space.  And the kids he took were grateful because he really cared about them.  But after many years some reporter decided to expose him by noting the school’s relatively low attendance rate and relatively high drop-out data.  He was, the story suggested, a phony who had been getting away with this for years.  My friend soon retired and afterwards died under sad circumstances.  Of course, were it not for him other feeder schools would have had worse data.  And, I wonder. would he have served his students better had he been willing to fudge the data?

The world is a worse place when we feel that maybe we “should” lie in order to “do good.”

So where do I go with this?  I’ve reached a few possibly useful conclusions—to start with.   To lessen the reasons to lie the stakes must not be too high and to increase the reasons to tell the truth the consequences must be helpful.  (Campbell’s Law)  Then  we need  to make it easier for the truth to be naturally exposed—where lying would require too much collaboration from too many people to last long.  (That’s what I usually count on–truth will win out over time–when I hear outrageous conspiracy theories.)   That’s one reason I like small schools.  Assuming that people generally trust data that supports what they otherwise know first-hand, school size helps check lying too much.   If I say 100% graduated, hopefully some kids, teachers and parents simply know better because they know better; they remember.   And on and on. There was a story in the media some years ago about a speech in which the valedictorian  started off by asking the graduates to look round and think about their freshman classmates–those who were no longer with them, who hadn’t made it.

But, we have to rely on some “facts”–just to get out of bed each morning.  But how much further from our own self-knowledge can we rely on “the evidence”?  In short, not far.  Restoring confidence in “the facts” while retaining sufficient skepticism is a tough balancing act.  It’s what, ideally, schools,  the media, the courts (and friends) are there for.   I’ve come to believe that the first order of the day for any reformer is: figure this puzzle out.  The answers must, I fear,  finally rest in human judgment; but judgment can be trained, improved upon and what better place for doing this than schools..

Yes, smallness is one partial answer.  Openness is another.   Not getting so tangled up in our fear of intruders that we lock everything up would help.   (And then we get hacked, etc.)   Lots of opportunities for families and schools to share information—more and more family conferences to clarify the self-serving lies that even the best kids occasionally tell.  Especially if the kids are at such meetings too so they can check on misleading claims adults sometimes indulge in.  It also means tackling the “isms—above all racism.  It’s this—and all the small disrespectful acts that go with it,  that cannot help but undermine trust.

We discovered (from others, including good private schools) the value of visiting teams of respected colleagues and experts, who come and spend time on a regular basis—as we did at CPESS and on some level also at Mission Hill.  Let them look over our records, our curriculum, our assessment tools and interview a sample of parents, teachers and students.  Sit in classes.  Then at the end, after reading their reports, we enjoy an open free-for-all, followed often by a written faculty “response.”   These were NOT for high-stakes purposes, but ways of checking for useful and helpful feedback.   It helps also if the school culture rests on frequent teacher-to-teacher visits, drop-ins, etc.

How to shift the balance?  How much of it must be mandated from above?  How far “above”?  Who should have access to what?  What protections are needed from harmful or premature disclosures—or should there be none?   “What we say here, stays here” may at times be critical for healthy discussion—if so, how do we provide for that too?  We need to leave room for discussing those “white lies” that even the strictest truth-teller might – or might not – occasionally indulge in.  And we need to help young people sort these out too, without undue fear.  The value of making such “habits of mind” explicit and user friendly takes time and effort.

How might we try some of these ideas out on an experimental level?   It is probably the narrative that goes with them that will or will not help persuade others to follow—not the statistical part.  The primary tool of a democracy is persuasion.  The facts are part of trying to persuade. Generally we stick with what we have been believing until someone we trust a lot on a personal basis presents an eye-witness report that forces us to consider the possibility that “I’m wrong.”  We have to respect how hard it to persuade people they’re wrong.  For as Thomas Kuhn said—in discussing the search for scientific proof—sticking with one’s current viewpoint is not a bad idea.  If we have no commitment to our ideas we will never know whether they are right or wrong.  We need accommodate new “truths” to old ones for as long as we can.  But also it shouldn’t be too uncomfortable to switch “sides”–eventually one should be able to drop practices or beliefs that even you have begun to be skeptical about and try out a few that you used to shun.  It’s easier if you are also able to revert!   Watching good teachers caused me to reconsider some of my pedagogical certainties:  like the value of choral reading (and not just of music). Even about lining-up routines; although I’ve also questioned why we need to line-up so often!

It was even exciting when I came back from visiting a city(Minneapolis) that never lined kids up, to ask colleagues why we needed them.

I’m also, as I finish this, thinking about how the other four “habits of mind” serve as a partial check on the first.  Number 2 usually is something like this: how else might it appear, look to others?  The third asks about perceived patterns, the fourth asks “what if” and the last asks, “who cares and does it matter?”  There are probably dozens of other habits of mind that we use as we delve deeper and deeper into the usually unending search for knowledge.  But then the dilemma is: habits depend on frequent use in many different settings.

The crisis, so-called, in American education is a symptom of a “crisis of trust” which in turn poses a “crisis for democracy” writ large—as an idea itself.  If we are not to give up, we need schools, families and communities that start to carefully rebuild trust within their own four walls, and base it on losing the fear that we might, on occasion, be wrong.  No institution I know, alas, presently values being wrong less than our K-12 schools.  We might as well start there.  Maybe if we do we can reverse the trends of the past few decades or distrust at all levels of society.


8 Responses

  1. Oh dear, the learning community meets the (imploded, partly mythological) public square, aka democracy.And both the children of that encounter and the children at their desk work better at Questions than Answers.

    Whaddeweye Gno about this?

    Ms. Deborah spends herself building stuff and thinking about it. I respect and love what she writes because it is the stupidly modest provisional knowledge that comes from fighting the good fight and thinking the intractable think. Loving actual kids. For years and years. Now that is putting the piss in epistemology.

    Also — not a small matter — she’s a bit easier to take than her counterpart in the big-D Democracy arena… which would be Chris Hedges.

    Because face it, the story of her sad brave friend with his Outcast School is heartbreaking even is you have (and we all do) many hearts. Anyone who engages “the least of these” knows that along with that beautiful newish creature, every ill that society is heir to walks in through the classroom door.

    You teach in gone fathers, you teach in consumerism, the street (whatever it may be), the movies and musci. You build and scaffold like crazy, and it can be a bridge to knowhere, a tower of babble, and everything in between…. will be, if you can handle it. The friend I imagine had lots of mini-miracles as well as regrets, but maybe the walls of his arteries began to resemble the walls of the trenches where he struggled, resounding with damage and rubble.

    So now we have some context (current so-called reformers be damned) for discussing “data,,” and being a little less driven — by prevailing thought and Power.

    (Which still leaves our friends democratic Reason and Persuasion hanging from some kind of increasingly authoritarian corporativtist ledge, but… you know… enough already… )

  2. Over the years, I have asked many education professionals the following question: If you were to place all your chips on one key idea upon which to stake American school reform, which gamble seems best to take? I have heard answers that range from reducing class size and differentiated instruction, to authentic assessment, drastic increases in teacher pay, to no-schools-but-widescale apprenticeships. What might your answer be?

    • Over the years — and I think that included reading the (Ted Sizer) Horace books c. 1990 — this has become an article of faith for me: NO “one best way” (!)

  3. From George Wood, Ohio, Principal
    Just Be Nice
    May 19, 2013 – The Forum
    by George Wood, Forum Executive Director
    (Dr. Wood will retire this year after serving as principal of Federal Hocking Secondary School in Stewart, Ohio for 21 years. He will stay on as superintendent of the Federal Hocking District.)
    Some 21 years ago I swiped an idea from my friend Dennis Littky and started sending out what I call “TGIFs.” The idea was to inform, and perhaps provoke some thought about how we keep school. This will be my last one.
    I have grappled with what to say in this for weeks. It is part of who we humans are that ‘starts’ and ‘ends’ of things seem to call for profundity. But profundity eludes me. So I’ll leave you with this one small thought: Be nice.
    There is not a lot (at my advanced age) that I remember about my own time as a student, but what I do remember are the acts of kindness by my teachers. Mrs. Kotcher, my kindergarten teacher, finding me long pants to put on the first day of school when older kids made fun of my shorts; Mrs. West (3rd grade) convincing me it was OK to miss school (first absence in four years) to go to Opening Day with my dad; Mr. O’Berry, a giant of a man, who allowed what seemed like our whole class to sit on his lap and cry when we heard President Kennedy was assassinated; Mrs. Hall agreeing that I was too ill to stay in 10th grade English class and should go home–in time to see the first pitch of the final game of the 1968 World Series (yes, baseball was played during the day back then); Mr. Roush who, in 12th grade, took us out of school every chance he got to see science in action and, who on one of the trips, allowed us to get up and walk out of a restaurant in South Carolina that refused to serve one of our African-American classmates; Dr. Phillips finding me dejected outside his office door when I picked up a C- exam paper and spending the rest of the afternoon, the day before spring break, teaching me how to write; and Dr. Geer who made it a habit to invite groups of undergraduates out to dinner and then supply them with theater tickets to performances we never would have attended otherwise.
    I know I learned a lot of academic stuff too, but what stuck with me were the kindnesses shown when, more often than not, I did nothing to deserve them. Nothing more than being a student, a child, who happened to be in their classroom.
    When I look back over my notebooks and journals from the past 21 years there are plenty of things I regret. What I do not regret were the times we educators chose to be kind to a kid. The times when we gave a child a second–and then third and fourth chance. The times we decided to let a kid go on a field trip, ignoring some misdeed that might have excluded him from the trip so that a child who had never been further than the county line could see the world writ large. You know the drill.
    School should be a place for all sorts of kindnesses. After all, children are forced to attend, with little or no choice over the building, staff, or bus driver they draw. School is one of their first experiences with government, with strangers in close proximity, with authority outside of the family. School should be a place of challenge, but also a place where children are supported to try, and try again. Students should leave us knowing that for this time in their lives they were in the company of people who genuinely liked them and worked in their best interests.
    When people ask me about what changes I have seen in the two decades I’ve worked here, I know they expect me to say something about how kids or families or teachers have changed. Wrong. Kids are still interesting, if a bit more docile, and interested in the world around them. Families still want the best they can marshal for their children. And teachers are here because they think they can make a difference.
    What has changed is that it is harder for us to be nice to kids. With elevated standards and increased testing, we find ourselves with less leeway with which we can help a child navigate. With ‘zero tolerance’ laws and other Draconian rules, the mistakes some children make can no longer be forgiven. The rapid-fire social media culture means that if we ever err on the side of mercy or charity, it will quickly be seized upon by those who are just looking for us to make a mistake. And the emphasis on punishing schools for things like dropouts makes it that much harder to enroll a student whose residence is just a bit suspect.
    There is no benefit to this toughness. Getting tough on kids will not make them tougher or any smarter. Forcing educators to act like their hands are tied at the most important moments in a child’s life only teaches children that the adults in their lives are powerless. Turning a deaf ear to the needs of kids, to moments when we could be kind rather than just follow the rules, does not help kids learn anything except that those in charge are operating at the lowest level of ethical reasoning.
    Being kind is not always easy. It’s easier to declare that a child earned the punishment he or she is receiving, and that they need to learn a lesson. Unfortunately, the only lesson that child will learn is that sometimes adults are more interested in rules and punishments that they are in children.
    We can teach our children a better lesson. We can teach them, as I’ve seen hundreds of children learn at my school, that when the chips are down teachers come through. We can teach them that when it seems like there is no way out of the hole that they have dug, a member of the school staff will show up with a shovel. We can teach them that no matter what silly, dumb, or downright ignorant thing he or she has said or done in the past, caring adults have short memories for minor mistakes and longer memories for serious work and accomplishment.
    I was trying to figure out how to finish this when a graduate from 2010 walked into my office. He was a difficult kid, barely made it to graduation. I know we helped him across the line. But he wanted me to be the first to know that he had just been offered a good job, with benefits, because, he said, he had graduated from our school. As he went off to tell his former teachers the good news, I realized that what we did for him, more than anything else, was to just be nice.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful, albeit disconcerting, views on what is a “fact” and who you can trust.

    It could not have come at a better time in my own journey to read an honest opinion of the dark underbelly of school data.

    I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Queens, New York and I remember my Mother always telling me not to care what other people say or think as long as I’m doing what I think is right. Treat others with respect, be honest, never intentionally hurt others and try your best. Simple guidelines to make it through the day and get beyond the limiting environment (both economically and educationally) that I had little control over as a youth.

    School was often as bad as the streets, with teachers and administrators exercising what, at times seemed, arbitrary power over EVERYTHING we did. I noticed how blacks were treated differently than whites, boys differently than girls, and parents differently than Principals. More than anything, I ultimately noticed how power worked…and that nobody was just going to “give it to me.”

    So when I asked, time and again, why the systems that define our day together are designed the way they were, I was told, “so that we learn” or worst yet, “just do it!” Eventually, it was easier for teachers to remove me from the classroom rather than answer my questions that were not part of their lesson plan for the period that they “had to get us through” for us to get to the next grade.

    Interesting, but what does this have to do with your article on the trustworthiness of “Fact’s”?

    Simple. It was the lack of questioning of why things were done the way they were. I felt, as early as elementary school, that schools were not about learning but rather, a badly designed, public babysitting service so my Mom could go to work and pay bills. Problem was her workday ended at 5 PM but our day was over at 3 PM and if that wasn’t bad enough, we would get the whole summer “off!”

    But the logic goes…we were learning. I learned my Mother entrusted strangers, not chosen by her (determined solely by our address), to watch, guide, teach, supervise and often raise her children. Why I asked do grades matter, can’t we chose subjects we are interested, does the test material need to be memorized and how to appeal a grade.

    After 25 years of working with American school systems, beyond “graduating” from the classroom, culminating with a law degree from NYU, I have a discovered one thing. Inner-city schools in America are not designed to develop critical thinkers, but rather, citizens of the status quote.

    Until we address this as a nation, the “educational data” means nothing beyond the fact that those in power, producing the justification of the month, as to what we need to spent another billion dollars to “improve.”

    So who can you trust? How about something everyone can understand, the most basic of human motivations…SELF-INTEREST! A tell-tale sign of a successful school I’ve discovered through the years, is when you ask the ultimate insiders, the teachers, if they would enroll their own children in the school.

    Thank you again for providing an insiders view to the challenges that surround “educational data” and questioning our seemingly endless retreat from common sense.

  5. What’s a fact? Ha! ‘Visiting teams of professionals…’ YES- let’s talk about teaching and learning- what we see? What we think? What kids’ express/do/create? And build on what we know is good. And those of you doing this already- keep building your practice- share it with others. Let’s get back on track for learning (money for books not for tests).

  6. Thank you for this post, Deb–so much to think about. It seems to me that school “data” is extremely difficult to collect and to “trust” what is collected because there’s just so much of it and too few people to do it, for one thing. As a teacher, even remembering to take accurate attendance every day can be a challenge–and what counts as “absent” and “tardy,” etc. And this should be the easiest of all school data to collect. What is far more difficult (impossible) is measuring “what children learn” in school, something you’ve written about extensively. How can we “build trust” in schools when school leaders and policy makers push extremely problematic quantitative data of “student learning” as FACT, tying high stakes decisions to this data, and defend the decision by accusing detractors of trying to avoid accountability? Trust is hard to build when there are powerful people who seem to be cynically undermining public schools at every juncture, regardless of the data (with an ideological bent toward privatization, or to a more prison-like “no excuses” model, for example). But for those who are trying to improve, and not destroy, public schools, how can we better understand what is going on in them? It seems to me that even more data needs to be collected, by more people. It needs to be more transparently available, and what counts as “data” needs to be expanded to include qualitative observations, interviews, descriptions of student work, essays and justifications for educational decisions, as well as surveys of parents, students, and graduates long after they’ve graduated, and more. No one measure or description needs to be “trusted,” various pieces of data need to triangulated. This may go a long way toward building trust in schools and particular approaches. However, at some point we also need to have the conversation that “student learning” cannot, in fact, be measured. Our brains are too complex. How do you build trust when humility is really in order? Perhaps we are trying to build trust when it is not deserved. We cannot continue to make strident claims about student learning, and tying high stakes decisions to them, based on clearly false premises.

  7. The smaller the circle, the more chance there is of honesty, understanding and trust. Even between couples there can be dishonesty, lack of understanding and distrust, but there are more motivations for positive relationships than negative, and less ways to obscure. So small schools, close relationships between home and school have more chance of ‘success’…but it is all a matter of degree and motivation.

    We focus on schools because addressing greed and inequality is so much more daunting. At least here it is possible to experiment. Would that more experiments look like those you suggest.

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