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“Data Craziness” (aka The Other Education: Part Deux)

Earlier this week, I responded to a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who constructed an artificial divide between our “formal education” (aka school) — which he indifferently described as linear, objective and ordinary — and our “emotional curriculum” (aka life) — which he approvingly described as nonlinear, subjective and transformational.

In fairness to Brooks, he’s hardly alone in this misconception — in fact, it’s probably inaccurate to call it a misconception, since this is how it works for too many of us: formal schooling is what you endure, and informal schooling is what helps you discover what really matters to you, what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, etc. But just because that’s the way things have been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should continue to be — a particularly relevant point for folks like Brooks, who are supposed to help light a better path, and for reform-minded cities like Washington, DC, where I now live. And yesterday I read something that gives me hope our city may be slowly adjusting its course to a more fruitful strategy for school improvement.

The event was a radio appearance by interim schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, a former deputy to Michelle Rhee, and a person who, depending on whom you ask, is either a constructive bridge between the Rhee era and the Gray administration, or a destructive reminder of the past four years. In the interview, Henderson artfully addressed the source of this artificial divide between formal and informal schooling, and suggested, to me at least, a nuanced understanding of what needs to happen going forward — in short, exactly what I want to hear from the top education official of my city.

“I think we’ve gotten something wrong,” she began. “Previously there was no measure of student achievement. We just sent kids to school and hoped for the best. And then the standards and accountability movement came along and said what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, so we have to test. And I think testing is incredibly important. But I also think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt.”

Henderson ceded that, currently, test scores remain the most objective available indicator of academic growth across the school system. “But I feel like we have to make people understand that test scores are not the only thing happening in our classrooms,” she said.

Imagine if more of our education policies were being constructed to address this vital insight? Imagine if more of our public leaders urged us all to end our obsession with either side of the pendulum extreme  — and charted a course to let that pendulum settle in the middle, where we value both measures and meaning, and where our schools are incentivized to create environments that nurture the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of our children (and communities)? And imagine if the Gray administration, under Kaya Henderson’s leadership, set out to establish three conditions that are not being met today:

  1. To measure all things worth measuring in the context of providing children the most meaningful education possible (aka Brooks’s “informal curriculum”).
  2. To ensure we know how to measure what we set out to measure.
  3. To attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more valuable that elude our instruments.

I like what I’m hearing.


The Other Education

I’ve always liked David Brooks as a columnist. He often takes stands I disagree with, but, generally speaking, he also approaches his role as a public intellectual with inquiry and openness, not orthodoxy and attitude.

In his education columns, however, Brooks has become a dangerous and myopic mouthpiece for a particular set of reform ideas that, without much prodding, turn to dust. And after reading a weekend column of his, I think I understand why.

The column is called “The Other Education” , and it chronicles his discovery of Bruce Springsteen and the ways in which the “emotional curriculum” of The Boss’s music helped shape Brooks’s worldview. Addressing the disconnect between the more formal education he received and this other education that proved so formidable, Brooks writes: “For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

“This second education,” Brooks continues, “doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it. The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious.”

I love half of this description. In the second part – the part about our “emotional education” – Brooks captures the elusive, nonlinear and transformative nature of what all learning should look like (knowing that some days we will succeed, and some days we will not). Yet in the first part – the part about a “normal schoolroom” – Brooks reveals his assumption that scholastic learning must always be direct, described, and discrete.

This is a monumental, misguided assumption, and it is shaping most of our current public discourse about education reform. In Waiting for Superman, it takes the form of a graphic in which a schoolroom full of children have the tops of their heads removed, and a teacher attempts to pour the learning (if you can call it that) directly, and discretely, into each child.

As with Brooks’s education columns, the message in the movie is not that this is an outdated model of schooling, but that existing dysfunctions in the system (which are very real) are preventing the teachers from developing the right aim, resulting in all of this “learning” spilling helplessly onto the desks in front of each child’s empty, waiting vessel.

Pardon my French, but are you fucking kidding me?

Everyone knows learning does not lend itself neatly to 45-minute blocks, five-day weeks, or any of the other structures in place to try and guide each child through the formal schooling process. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that there is no role for standards, tests, or structures. But it does mean that in addition to a school’s most visible structures – its schedules, its assessments, and its policies – there are an equally essential (and elusive) number of invisible structures, otherwise known as the inner conditions from which we operate – our passions, our fears, our needs, our interests, and our dreams – or, to use Brooks’s language, the “emotional curriculum.” And any policy that tends to one, but not both, of these sets of issues is doomed to fail.

Over the past few years Brooks’s columns have advocated for a set of education policies that are notably attentive to the former, and breathtakingly silent on the latter. He would have us believe our single current measure of school success – 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores – is a sufficient incentive for our entire system of schools. He has urged us to start using these scores to decide which teachers are best. He has contributed to the quixotic characterizations of charter schools. And, I now see, he has ignored the dissonance between his most powerful personal learning experience – a deeply relevant, engaging, experiential journey of self-discovery – and the types of school environments the policies he pushes would actually incentivize.

To be clear: the Op-Ed is a flawed communications vehicle. Nothing lends itself well to 700-word explanations – least of all how we learn, and what would help more of us learn well more of the time. Still, I would like to respectfully urge David Brooks to channel his “inner Bruce” and aim higher in the education columns that follow. As he knows from firsthand experience, the schools our kids need must tend to not just their formal academic needs, but also their social, emotional, ethical, vocational and aspirational needs. And the public intellectuals we need are people who, with inquiry and openness, help us better understand, and then imagine in new ways, how to get there from here.

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