All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


07 June 2011

When Cheating is the Only Way to Win

Something that has come up a lot in recent discussions in the edu-blogosphere (I'm specifically thinking of this conversation at Joanne's blog) is the "success" achieved by schools that experience tremendous rates of attrition. Many people are critical of this sort of "success", to the point where they think it's a form of failure. One regular commenter, CarolineSF, had this to say:

If I ran a school that were experiencing such high attrition (or, in the case of AIPCS, such a major transformation in demographics), it seems like my common-sense strategy would be to celebrate the successes of the remaining students, maintain good relations with my funders and school community, and LAY LOW, refraining from the public preening and boasting that prompts busybodies to look up the statistics.

The assumption is obviously that the high attrition is something to be ashamed of, something that runs counter to academic "success".

You might think that high attrition rates are a form of cheating, that true educational success involves educating everyone that walks through your door. LIkewise, you might think that not letting in the more difficult cases is like refusing to fence/wrestle/race against better opponents. Yes, you'll have a great record, but you're never getting to the Olympics that way.

Let's digress for a moment and talk about Star Trek. You've heard of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, I hope? If you haven't, follow the link and go read. Now, Kirk "cheated" because he changed the rules of the game. But the game couldn't be won with the rules it had -- all it could do was test your character as your ship was destroyed. That's great if what you're trying to do is see how people respond under pressure, it's not so great if you're trying to see who can actually succeed and who cannot.

I want to suggest the possibility that people who accuse high-attrition schools of 'cheating' (bearing in mind it's my word, not theirs) are misunderstanding what is going on, and that there is a difference between testing a school's character and testing a school's ability to educate students. I first brought this line of thought up in the comments to another post at Joanne's site. CarolineSF was making a similar point then to the point she makes above: namely that a school with a huge attrition rate can't be claimed to be "superior". Much of what I am going to say from here on is an elaboration on those comments.

Whether a school can be called "superior" or not depends entirely on what you think the goal is. For example: in SEAL training, the goal is to produce maximally competent and adaptable military operatives; because this is the success condition, the training has a huge attrition rate, and doesn't even let all that many people in in the first place. Likewise, you might imagine a training program that defined "success" in terms of producing as many people who can make a three-point shot as possible. They're going to run like an assembly line: anyone who is going to take more than a few days of training is going to be dismissed because the resources needed to train that person can be better used to train five others.

We need to understand what it is we believe the success conditions of our public school system to be. Understanding those success conditions will tell us what we should do vis-a-vis students with a wide range of "problems": poverty, illiteracy, various forms of social blight, hostility, sociopathy, disability, etc. If our success condition is "EVERY SINGLE BIOLOGICAL HUMAN THAT COMES THROUGH THAT DOOR NEEDS TO BE ABLE TO GET 1200 ON THE SAT", well, then that's our success condition.

But is that really what would make for a good school? I doubt it. I'm of the mind that the success conditions of public education should be twofold: First, any human being who presents him or herself as a student should be accepted by the teachers. Second, any student accepted by the teachers should meet some minimum threshold (say, a 1200 on the SAT. Or a statewide graduation exam, or something like that.)

Now it's the "presentes him or herself as a student" that is doing all my work for me, so let me explain what I mean. CarolineSF -- and people like her -- seem to be claiming that a "win" in education involves not just delivering the opportunity for a high-quality to every single human being under the age of 18 (I am loathe to call them all either children or students), but having that person successfully receive that education.

That position can't possible be right. It's a Kobayashi Maru scenario: all you're going to test is the character of your educators and administrators as your schools fail at the impossible. And I do mean "impossible", because learning isn't entirely up to the teachers. If I can quote St. Anselm's De Casu Diaboli for a moment:
Therefore, that which he did not receive to keep because he deserted it, he did not receive not because God did not give it, but, rather, God did not give it because he did not receive it.

Anselm's point here is that the Devil was not "fated" to turn to evil because of something God did: it's not that God did not give the devil the power to cleave unto the truth and the light. Anselm thinks that the receiving of something -- a facility, a quality, etc. -- can be conditioned on two separate requirements: that the thing be offered or given, and that the thing be accepted.

I'd like to posit that something very similar must occur with an education. It can be given by the teacher, by the relative, by the parent, but not received by the learner. And it is thus not received, but it is not received not because it is not given, but because it is not received. (Yes, I just compared some students to the Devil. I'm sure most teachers understand.)

In other words, at some level or another, a student has to want to learn; he or she has to be willing to receive instruction. Merely placing a human body in a classroom doesn't make them a student. A teacher must accept a student, and a student must accept the authority of a teacher:
First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part.

Daniel-San was a highly motivated learner. Not all students are going to be quite as motivated. Some will be of mixed minds, and some will be outright reluctant. It's surely true that some teachers are better than others at breathing life on the embers of interest. But that's an interpersonal talent that's dependent on chemistry, not really a teachable skill at all, and it's extremely context dependent. *I* might be the right person for getting Johnny interested in math, or Clara interested in Homer. But I might be the wrong person for getting Clara interested in math or Johnny interested in Physics. And in any case, there have to be embers there.

It might be possible to coerce learning, to some extent: reasonable minds differ on this point. Surely it's harder to coerce learning than mere behavior, but it strikes me that if I beat you (or even just threaten you credibly), I might be able to get you to "want" to do whatever it takes to get me to stop. And that seems like it's at least part of what we do with students right now: "get good grades or your future is doomed" we tell them. It's not a recipe for a good education -- for it puts the focus on the wrong things -- but it yields at least some results.

But there are human beings under the age of 18 who will not choose to be taught, who will not choose to be coerced, and who do not wish to receive what is offered to them. And it may just be that the right thing for a school to do in such a situation, assuming that your goal is educational success and not some sort of fascinating Kobayashi Maru psychology experiment, is to remove them from the school. Not necessarily permanently -- just until they decide they want to choose to learn, until they present themselves as a student.

Clearly this intuition of mine flies in the face of how we have our schools set up now. They are compulsory, and -- within certain limits -- we arrest kids and parents who don't attend. We tell teachers that they have to take as a student every human being who walks through their door. The teacher is deprived of the ability to pick and choose their students, to a certain extent.

And that's probably as it should be. Mr. Miyagi wasn't earning his keep as an instructor, otherwise he would have added "You promise learn and pay 19.99 per lesson." He was taking Daniel on as a charity case, which is noble. (And indeed, Socrates used to think that teaching for money was suspect.) So he got a choice. Teachers are working for the state (or for a private school, funded by parents). They agree, as part of their job, to take on any student who comes along.

But it's one thing to say that you have to teach all your students regardless of ability or economic background or culture or education level. That's fine -- call it "social justice" if you're inclined, or just call it "equal opportunity" if you're not. It's an entirely different matter to say that you have to teach all the human beings in your classroom, even if they don't want to be taught. The fact that the teacher is accepting a paycheck for such a task doesn't make it any less unrealistic a prospect. (N.B. - we do let people out of contracts on the grounds of impossibility...)

But if that's the success condition we have -- if Caroline SF is right -- then this is why I think that, in a sense, the "cheating" involved in attrition and dropout rates may be the only way to win: if you want a good school, if you want a school at all, you have to be able to get rid of human beings who do not wish to be students at all.

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