I continue to marvel at Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Educational Research. That book and Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University (which I’ve now read twice) have been astonishing experiences for me this term. I wish I’d found them both earlier, but I’m glad I’ve found them now.
I wrote about Lagemann’s book in my last post. I want to continue with another, more focused look at a section called “Developmental Perspectives.” Here Lagemann tells the story of the rise of behaviorism as the fundamental paradigm of educational research, a paradigm that devolves into a kind of ”social bookkeeping.” (The phrase immediately brings to mind some of the extremes in the new craze for web-based “analytics.”) Yet in that rise, even when it was happening, there were dissenting voices, warnings, even temporary halts in the headlong rush to reductive measures and models of human learning. One such warning came at the very moment the Educational Testing Service was about to be founded. As Lagemann tells the story, “the original proponents of such an organization were William S. Learned and Ben D. Wood, the directors of the Carnegie Foundation’s Pennsylvania Study.” They wanted to keep academic standards high, a laudable aim to be sure, but their models of cognition were narrow and simplistic. Like the miasma theorists in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map who thought cholera was caused by bad air, not water-borne bacteria, these experts were well-intentioned but working from a paradigm of fixed innate ability and stimulus-response learning whose basic assumptions were wrong. We are still living with the dire consequences in many ways, including systems of educational “assessment” that use commodity methods to produce commodified learners.
Carl Brigham tried to intervene. He was not anti-testing. In fact, Lagemann tells us he was a psychometrician who had helped to develop the SAT and “was working to improve the SAT and other tests.” (More context: earlier in his career, Brigham had espoused racial theories of intelligence that he later disowned. Brigham’s break with his earlier views shaped many of the concerns he later expressed about uncritical adoption and use of standardized testing. You can read some of his story in this fascinating Frontline interview with Nicholas Lemann.) What Brigham opposed was not testing, but a testing industry that encouraged schools to adopt these instruments uncritically and use them crudely, without an adequate understanding of the complexities of learning, particularly the social aspects of learning. Here’s how Lagemann describes Brigham’s effort, and his rationale:
In an article published in School and Society, as well as in correspondence with J. B. Conant, whom Learned and Wood had enlisted to help their cause, Brigham had expressed grave concern about two matters. The first was “premature standardization”–developing norms to give meaning to test results before the full significance of what had been tested was fully understood. The second concern was that there had been a lack of research into questions that were essential if tests were to be meaningful. As Brigham explained, “the literature of pedagogy is full of words and phrases such as ’reasoning,’ ‘the power to analyze,’ and ‘straight thinking,’” none of which is understood. Unless there was more research into such fundamental processes, Brigham insisted, testing would interfere with efforts to develop reasonable objectives for education [my emphasis]. Claiming that the demands of the market and the claims of ”educational politicians” had stunted the development of a valid science of education, Brigham feared that sales would overwhelm the research functions of a large permanent testing service. As he put it, “although the word research will be mentioned many times in its charter, the very creation of powerful machinery to do more widely those things that are now being done badly will stifle research, discourage new developments, and establish existing methods, and even existing tests, as the correct ones.”
Brigham’s words could have been written yesterday. His warnings are still urgent, perhaps even more so than when they were first written. Yet they haven’t been heeded, and the results have not been pretty, either. When Campbell’s Law kicks in, true insight disappears:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Under these circumstances, the “powerful machine to do more widely those things that are now being done badly” will also shape the entire schooling experience so lopsidedly that whatever the original test sought to measure, even imperfectly, can no longer be measured at all. Instead, the practices begin to measure themselves, untethered from complex realities, and to distort, even eliminate, the contexts in which deep learning can occur. Yet we will have self-validating data to make us feel we’re making progress, and a steady market for more feature-laden varieties of (proprietary) porcine lipstick.
Lagemann tells us that Brigham was right: ”the very existence of ETS helped perpetuate existing educational practices,” and “for a time turned scholarship in education away from the progressive purposes that had been so central to it during the interwar era.” The consequence was a shift from trying “to improve the effectiveness of instruction” toward the different goal of ”perfecting instruments of selection,” a shift that persisted until the “cognitive turn” of the 1960′s.
And now here we are in 2011, with a system that continues to appear to distinguish “academics” from “education.” Have we now come to the point in higher education at which the high-stakes testing world of NCLB and its kin, amplified by the worst models of computer-aided instruction, has concealed from us the choices we are making by selling us perfected instruments of selection in the guise of improved educational effectiveness? I often think so, and the thought frightens me. We’re being sold miasma meters to wave around instead of accepting the challenge of thinking hard about complex questions and designing our systems to be elastic enough to prevent the “vendor lock-in,” literal and metaphorical, of institutionally palatable patent medicines that will forever stunt our capacity for intellectual growth.
What could be more disastrous for a democracy?