More on the Failure of Technocracy

Education Reform has taken the counter-productive path of focusing narrowly on identifying the “scientifically” validated techniques to maximize  math and reading test scores.  The advocates of this approach imagine themselves as rational people, using the tools of science to improve others’ lives.  In reality, they have failed to grasp the limitations of science and the inability to centrally plan improved outcomes for all.  Rather than truly relying on science, they are abusing the authority of science to exercise control.

This abuse of science to wield power is also known as technocracy, the rule by self-proclaimed experts.  Greg had an excellent piece yesterday describing the problems of technocracy.  In this post I would just like to add two illustrations of the failure of technocracy in education — one from program evaluation and the other from the perspective of the humanities.

The program evaluation illustration comes from the results of a US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Evaluation study of “a 93-hour professional development program focused on deepening math content knowledge.”  Teachers were randomly assigned to receive this intensive math professional development or to a control group that did not receive any additional training.  Measures of math knowledge collected from the teachers show that those who received the professional development learned what the training was attempting to convey.  And independent classroom observations found that the “quality” of classroom instruction was higher for the teachers who received the training.  Again, the professional development intervention appears to have been properly implemented in that it changed the treatment group teachers’ knowledge and their classroom practice.

Despite successful implementation of this professional development based on what many experts believed to be the best practice for improving math instruction, scores on the NWEA and state math tests showed small declines (and the NWEA decline was not statistically significant while the state test decline was).

It is unclear what part of this effort failed.  We can’t simply conclude that this PD, like many before it, was unproductive.  To do so, we’d have to know that the measures of implementation — teacher knowledge and classroom instruction quality — are in fact capturing knowledge and quality.  And we’d have to know that the NWEA and state math test scores are valid predictors of later life outcomes.  So, even with a clear failure we have no idea whether the failure was in the PD, the measures of implementation, or the measures of the outcomes.  Of course, it is also possible (perhaps highly likely) that the math approach deemed the best by math education experts wasn’t actually the best for all.

This illustrates the trap of technocracy in education.  Experts may well be wrong and our tools for scientifically evaluating policies are very imperfect.  And all of this assumes that we do not differ on values and priorities which might lead to legitimate differences about what outcomes should be optimized and for whom.

My second illustration of the failure of technocracy in education comes from the perspective of the humanities.  Scott L. Newstok, who directs the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College, recently gave the convocation address to the entering class of 2020 at that institution.  His entire remarks were published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and they are well worth reading in full.  To paraphrase Lincoln, I can do little to add or detract from what he said other than to highlight some of the key passages below:

Your generation is the first to have gone through primary and secondary school knowing no alternative to a national regimen of assessment. And your professors are only now beginning to realize how this unrelenting assessment has stunted your imaginations.

In response to the well-intentioned yet myopic focus on literacy and numeracy, your course offerings in art, drama, music, history, world languages, and the sciences were all too often set aside “to create more time for reading and math instruction.” Even worse, one of the unintended consequences of high-stakes testing is that it narrowed not only what you were taught but how you were taught. The joy of reading was too often reduced to extracting content without context, the joy of mathematics to arbitrary exercises, without the love of pattern-making that generates conjecture in the first place.

You’ve been cheated of your birthright: a complete education. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (at your age of 18), a “complete education” gives “not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”…

The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word “invention” and the word “inventory.” Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.

People on today’s left and right are misguided on this point, making them strange bedfellows. Progressive educators have long been hostile to what they scorn as a “banking concept” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge in passive students. Neoliberal reformers — the ones who have been assessing you for the past dozen years — act as if cognitive “skills” can somehow be taught in the abstract, independent of content. And some politicians seem eager to get rid of teachers altogether and just have you watch a video. You, having been born when Google was founded, probably take it for granted that you can always look something up online.

But knowledge matters. Cumulatively, it provides the scaffolding for your further inquiry. In the most extreme example, if you knew no words in a language, having a dictionary wouldn’t help you in the least, since every definition would simply list more words you didn’t know. Likewise, without an inventory of knowledge, it’s frustratingly difficult for you to accumulate, much less create, more knowledge. As the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante said, “There is no work … that is not the fruit of tradition.”

Tradition derives from the Latin traditio — that which is handed down to you for safekeeping. I think part of our innate skepticism of tradition derives from our good democratic impulses: We don’t want someone else telling us what to do; we want to decide for ourselves. In other words, you rightly reject a thoughtless adherence to tradition, just as you rightly reject (I hope) the thoughtlessness that accompanies authoritarianism. However, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt insisted, education “by its very nature … cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” Educational authority is not the same thing as political authoritarianism.

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One Response to More on the Failure of Technocracy

  1. Greg Forster says:

    An excellent passage! Though I don’t appeal to “tradition,” there are important similarities here to what I’m writing now in Part 4 of my series. I have to up my game!

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