what is to constitute that a conversation is “about promoting diversity”?

My question for today: is an academic discussion of the production of diversity in its poetic and political contexts the discussion that “we” should have about our diversity practices and how they might evolve in the coming years?

Powers-that-be have asked our department to produce a “Diversity Report” on our practices “promoting diversity.”

Not that there is anything wrong about that—though we may not have produced such a report without of formal request from the Powers.  The Powers also told us that earlier reports were not adequate.  We were asked to discuss our practices and propose changes in these practices over the next two years.  This post is one of my statements in this discussion.  Students and colleagues are welcome to comment, in the spirit of transparency.

Famously, discussions about “diversity” are difficult (Lin 2007; Pollock 2004, 2008).  At some point in the discussion someone will ask: what “counts” as diversity: LGBT status? Disability status?   Others may whisper: Religion? Age?  National origin? Nationality? One of our colleague in the College once argued that, as the only Skinnerian behavior modification person on the faculty, he, a white male, might be the most “diverse” person there.

There is a “gotcha” side to expanding what is to count (what should be quantified) as diversity.  There is a powerful political consensus here that is not to be trifled with, and questions about expanding the categories are soon set aside.

A more disrupting argument is made by those who argue that discussions of “diversity” masks the political imperatives that let to affirmative action policies in favor ed federally labeled “minorities” (Guinier 2003) as well as the transfer of the definition of what is to count, and how, from national polities (and the courts) to local polities with little accountability except to themselves (and their public relation departments).  This line of argumentation will also be set aside, but not without some discomfort,

In any event, the reports of the past few years (some of which I wrote as department chair) have mostly emphasized the counting of faculty and students from protected federal categories.  I insisted a few years ago that dissertation topics might be another index of our efforts at “promoting diversity.”  This allowed me to talk about a research concern with “disability” that does not fit neatly in any effort to quantify diversity.

However, as I made the point about dissertations, I wondered whether I was being innovative or sarcastic.  In the long history of affirmative action, as I understand it (and this is not my academic field), the issue mostly concerned issues of membership and blocks on membership.  Reporting on numbers of “minorities” in a polity could then be used as shorthand evidence that blocks still existed, or had been removed.  In recent years however there has been much debate on whether removing formal blocks is enough.

This brings me to my own activity as an academic anthropologist and university professor.  I know I am expected by many to reflect on how my activities might block this or that diverse person—and not only when I sit on an admissions committee, or grade papers.  I must wonder how some of my claims to diversity may advantage me, or how I should keep others among my claims in various closets.  I might wonder on the powers that make some of my claims advantageous, and others dangerous—to myself and others.  I might wonder how a diversity trait is differentiated from another (how many skin colors? Where is the boundary between “light” and “dark” skins? How many genders? Etc.).  I might wonder whether all this is good (bad?) to think, or to eat…

Actually, of course, I teach courses about all this—in relation to education, family, technology, education.  The anthropologists among my readers will have recognized the quote in the last sentence (Lévi-Strauss 1963 [1962]: 89).  Arguably, anthropology is the social science founded on the recognition that the ongoing production of diversity is fundamental to humanity.  One might wonder whether Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan would have been possible without Margaret Mead (1949)—or whether Mead, and the institutionalization of anthropology, is part of the same movement with de Beauvoir and Friedan against earlier evolutionary and biological understandings, and the politics derived from them.

My question for today: is an academic discussion of the production of diversity in its poetic and political contexts the discussion that “we” should have about our diversity practices and how they might evolve in the coming years?


Guinier, Lani. “Admissions Rituals as Political Acts: Guardians at the Gates of Our Democratic Ideals.” Harvard Law Review, 117, 1, 1-491. 2003

How, when, about what, and with whom, can faculty in a school of education govern?

It is not quite enough to talk about “shared governance” without specifying “with whom” and on what grounds, formally and informally through networks of interest.

(Part 2 of the blog posted on June 12, 2013)

In one way the questions are easily answered for Teachers College by a quick look at the statutes

The Faculty of Teachers College play a central role in determining the standards, the values, and the character of the institution. Members of the Faculty provide the instruction, conduct the research, and perform the professional services necessary to accomplish the purposes of the College. The Faculty, subject only to the control reserved by the Trustees, have ultimate authority to establish requirements for student admission, programs of instruction, and student academic progress, and to recommend the conferring of degrees and diplomas. The Faculty also make recommendations to the President and the Trustees concerning its own welfare. (My emphasis Governance and Organization of the College Section 3, page 2, retrieved June 17, 2013).

Note the capital ‘F’ in “Faculty,” the word “ultimate,” and the absence of any mention of an administrative structure in the relationship between “Faculty” and “Trustees.”  Note also the absence of any mention of Columbia University, New York State, or the Federal Government—all of whom are intimately involved in all these matters and significantly Faculty authority.  And note, of course, the absence of any mention of unauthorized power and, by implication, resistance, bricolage, etc.

But, as we, individual members of a Faculty, soon experience, the questions are not easily answered in the details of our everyday encounters with this or that regulation, or this or that possible future whether personal (e.g. new course) or collective (e.g. new program).  The following is some thoughts about my personal understanding of how these questions are answered at this moment in our history.  I am particularly interested at this moment on the subquestion “with whom do we govern?”  This a question about contexts of significance: who are the people who can make the most difference on matters we might want to legislate? Who is impacted, directly or indirectly?  In brief, what are the conditions and limits to the Faculty’s “ultimate authority” on requirements, programs, and student progress?  I sketch how this could be investigated through several examples, from the not so trivial to the imaginary.

1) We, as assembled Faculty, could probably deal in a few months of debates and resolution with an irritant to a few employees in the Office of Doctoral Studies, doctoral students and their advisors: the “Statement of Total Program.”  If you think, while reading this, “what’s that?”, then you are either very new to Teachers College, or not dealing with many doctoral students.  If you ask “why,” then you risk a history lesson from the long-timers at the College who may remember that this was created in the 1970s to replace the year-long residence then required of all doctoral students.  As far as I know this is a matter under full Faculty control (though I suspect New York State and Columbia University would have to consulted).  But “they” did not do it sometimes in the past.  “We” do it, on an ongoing basis every time we deal with student puzzlement about this piece of paper that stands on their way to graduation.

2) Who controls what individuals teach?  Why should “new courses” be “approved,” by whom and on what grounds?  The FEC approval process would appear to be under Faculty control (leaving aside NYC authority over “credit hours” and the like).  Other Faculties, in other schools of education, appear to have a very different process.  Our own process has many side effects on individual faculty academic freedom that we must deal with whether we, as individuals, agree with the policy or not.

3) How much should we receive in return for our work?  Or, to put slightly differently, how much of a share of the College’s total income, can we claim? Is this a Faculty claim, or an individual faculty claim?  This issue is most salient when discussing salary (the “pool” vs. individual remuneration), or special rewards for special tasks (e.g. share of research funding, external work, etc.).  But it is also implicit in every discussion of administrative salaries and bonuses, tuition level, financial aid, capital campaigns, etc.  On these matters the Faculty has no authority, but it has significant power, both as Faculty and as individuals.  Given this power, it is in the very best interest of those en-trustee-ed to deal with these matters to play close attention.

4) Given the complexity of most of the questions immediately facing us, does it make sense for Teachers College, as a corporation, to be organized as one school though it may have several major goals.  Who has the power to lead? Who has the authority to make what kind of changes.

Item: In the late 1970s, a long debate enshrined a new self-description of Teachers College as “a school of education, psychology, and health profession.” The current self-description, as it appears on the introductory page for the College now says that it “is committed to a vision of education writ large, encompassing our four core areas of expertise: health, education, leadership and psychology” (“About TC” , retrieved on June 15, 2013).  I am not sure whether the old description is still used or in what contexts. I do not remember any debate about adding the word “leadership.”

Item: The multiplicity of titles our “deans” have had over the past 30 years suggest that it might be time to move to a multiple school structure with two or three deans reporting to a provost. The vectors of power and authority on such matters are quite murky, which may be why we rarely do more than hint that such conversations may be happening (note that there may be further movement on this than meets the eye, what with the appointment of Vice Deans and Deputy Provosts).  And yet, if the Faculty “establishes programs of instruction,” then, arguably, leadership about its organization, including its possible division, should come from this Faculty.

5) What is the scope of Teachers College?  What programs belong? And how is this related to the size of the faculty or the physical plant?  Is this a zero-sum game where new programs can only appear at the price of the end of other programs?  Must we do what we do with 155 faculty (+-10)?  Should we expand?  Should we build, or just repaint?

All these are matters for governors, and the governed to deliberate about and then act on.  Where do we, as both governor and governed, enter the deliberation and participate in the decision?  It is not quite enough to talk about “shared governance” without specifying “with whom” and on what grounds, formally and informally through networks of interest.

One solution I am experimenting with here, is blogging about it…

On applying anthropology to faculty governance in a school of education

What I am arguing here is that, in the political life of any polity (whether small town or corporation), the consequences of an accomplishment are never reliably fixed for good. As time passes, the consequences of each event can change as new interpretants [in Peirce’s sense] assert themselves.

[This was triggered by ongoing controversies at Teachers College regarding various decisions made by top administrators, responses by various people including students and faculty.  What can current anthropological analyses contribute to the recurrent calls for shared governance?  What can faculty govern?  How?  For those in the know, I will be mixing Weberian via Geertz, Foucauldian, and Latourian metaphors, along with others inspired by de Certau and Garfinkel]

One of the first thing I heard when I started graduate school in 1968, and associated with “America,” was that “government is best which governs least” and that “the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world” (Thoreau, Civil disobedience).  And yet, if democracy is government “by the people,” then there is no democracy without work by this people who must be concerned with it and bestow at least some thoughts to it.  And yet …, around and around.

Now, it is possible to argue that Teachers College, for many of us, is the small town of most daily consequence.  It is the location of much of our daily work, it is where we may know most of the people and they know us.  It is the space where we meet the most specific of governmental regulations.  Outside, we are citizens, among hundreds of millions, of various nations and states; inside, we are caught with a few hundred people, in a locality altogether unique, deliberating very particular interests with which few “outside” would be concerned.

So, if Teachers College is treated as a small locality with its own political system, one could say, with Thoreau, that the best “governance” is governance that allows most of the citizens (employees) to devote the least amount of time to the production and products of government.  After all, most of us are not here to govern (administer) though we have to check governors (administrators) when they forget the goals of governance.  And yet, without active service by at least some, it is probably that, at not infrequent times, many of us will be obliged to give more time to the products of governance than we might wish.

But, of course, Teachers College is a corporation, not a town.  We are employees, not citizens.  Our administrators are not elected.  Financial resources flow from Teachers College to us, rather than the reverse.  We are not taxed; we sell services.  All of this commercial activity is tightly controlled by a web of laws and regulations, some enforced by various actual governments (from the IRS to IRBs, not to mention credit hours and Integrative Projects).  Other regulations are enforced contractually by other corporations, from Columbia University to insurance companies, etc.  I suspect that no one at TC knows the full extent of this web, and this is OK as long as one person knows her position on the network of entangling connections (including both descending and ascending positions), acts so that the controlling regulating agencies will acknowledge that what it requires done has been done, and then reports this acknowledgment to the proper persons who will then report it further, all the way to the president and Board of Trustees, not to mention faculty, etc., when needed (remember the many e-mails some of us received from Janice Robinson regarding the “On-Line Harassment Prevention Course”).

If Teachers College, as corporation, could be the well-oiled machine some expert in bureaucratic efficiency might imagine, then everything would be OK.  If the actual corporation was powerful enough to have become a panopticon, everything might be well also–though perhaps only as far as the performance of the required is concerned.

But, of course, Teachers College is neither machine nor panopticon.  It is a live “polity” (a word I prefer to “community” for reasons I explain elsewhere) that is also a network and web.  At every nodes there is fundamental uncertainty as to the exact shape of the cog one must fit into, as well as who is warden and who is inmate.  Everyone who is caught here must wonder whether the appointed task was indeed accomplished, or whether an accomplishment has been reported to the right person(s).  It is not only that the feedback channels are not well oiled, but that the feedback for the same event keeps changing.

For example, a brief case study:

There appears to have been two of triggering events to the Spring 2013 controversies: the(bonuses paid to some administrators in 2010/2011; and Susan Furhman’s association with Pearson.  I focus on the latter and particularly on the transformations in the effects it has had in the TC polity.  I personally learned about the association three or four years ago, and talked about my “discovery” to a few of our colleagues, none of them knew about it.  I did not anything more about it.  I assumed that “everybody (but a few at the periphery) knew—including our Executive Committee—and that it was OK with them.  I retreated to my pond (metaphorically, to build on Thoreau) and forgot about the matter.  Actually, as “all” (?) know, Furhman’s association dates from before she started as president.  Quite a few people did know about it, including the trustees who must have been convinced that it would be good for Teachers College to have one of ours as, actually, the sole voice from the world of “education” on the board of a company that self-describes as “the world’s leading education company, providing educational materials, technologies, assessments and related services to teachers and students of all ages” (retrieved from the Pearson web site “About us” and “Board of directors”  on June 6, 2013).  And then, suddenly, many, with Dianne Ravitch, are now saying that the association may be a conflict of interest—a major charge indeed.

Whether there is anything wrong or conflictual about Furhman’s association with Pearson will continue to be debated.  What I am arguing here is that, in the political life of any polity, the consequences of an accomplishment are never reliably fixed for good.  As time passes, the consequences of each event can change as new interpretants [in Peirce’s sense] assert themselves.  The process is not mechanical, and final outcomes cannot be predicted.  We cannot stop moving and the need to govern is ever renewed.

This is a fundamental process that neither the tightening of procedures or controls can abolish.  It is a process well documented by significant research and theory, particularly from the parts of the sciences with which cultural anthropology is most comfortably associated.  As faculty members discuss what we mean, practically, about “shared governance” understanding our contexts and their constraints is essential.

I will suggest some of what I think might be done, practically, in a later post.

On parents and school success, again

We need research into the process that make some people fail schools (and much less research on why some other people are failed by schools).

Nothing new for many of us in this summary of sociological research:

“Family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement.” (Reardon 2011: 5)

Note the “now” for a study that essentially tells us that not much has changed since the Coleman report.  This rhetorical move may be what attracted the New York Times who highlighted the study at least twice since it was published.

I missed Reardon’s study when it was published, as well as the first editorial essay published in the Times about it.  The April 27th “Opinionator” piece by Reardon is thus not quite “news” but it does confirm the trend about what is to count as “fit to print” knowledge.  Reardon himself, as an academic sociologist on the faculty of the School of Education at Stanford, of course knows that what he is observing is not a new phenomenon and his paper is a good source for a brief history of the sociological research on family and school performance.  I will use the paper the next time I teach my course on family and education.

His contribution, as he summarizes it in the original paper, is:

As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened? The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier (2011: 4)

In the paper he summarizes four possible reasons in more than ten pages of text.  In the Opinionator piece, this is summarized into a few paragraphs Reardon summarizes as follows:

It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school. … One part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. … Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, … High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources … on their children’s cognitive development … They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich. (Reardon http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/no-rich-child-left-behind/

I am not sure of the “much more important” part of the explanation.  When I teach all this, I then ask the students to read Jack Goody (Production and reproduction on bilateral devolution, 1976) and/or Bourdieu on marriage strategies (1977 [1972]: 30-71) while making the point that in each epoch/historical moment/culture the rich and powerful have to adapt their strategies to the local conditions they find themselves in–just as the poor must do.  Thus, in Euro-America at least, marriage strategies have become obsolete.  Production and reproduction of wealth and privilege know require schooling strategies.

So, the question is figuring out in more exact details what it is that the rich do in a world where sanction by schooling is essential.  Would-be reformers attempting to counter the strategies of the rich must develop analytic understandings of school sanctioning that is at least as good as the practical understandings of the rich.  It is on this point, as McDermott and I have argued in many different ways, that social scientific writing has failed.  Reardon, like generations of sociologists before him (since, at least, Moynihan), places “cognitive development” (of the individual child) as the mediation between strategies (stable homes, reading to the child, etc.) and material success.  The school is treated as an altogether impartial umpire in the race to the top.  Given a fair umpire, then it is only training before that will distinguish the talented who wins the race from the talented who does not.  Thus Reardon’s policy suggestions: “improve preschools and child care,… improve the quality of our parenting [so that] parents become better teachers themselves.”

These, of course, were the suggestions that were made to Lindon Johnson and led to a plethora of Great Society programs in the 1960s.  The failure of these programs in closing achievement gaps may be that they were badly designed or under funded.  It may also be that cognitive development is not the key.  What if the key is in manipulating the umpire? (e.g. distracting him at the beginning of the race, blinding her to a move that should have penalized the racer, etc.).  We are well aware of the moves the rich and powerful make to gain advantage in college admissions.  We suspect these moves can also “help” a child enter a prestigious pre-school.  But there may be other mechanisms that are much less direct and yet effective in making large scale policies in favor of greater cognitive development altogether irrelevant if the goal is closing the gap (the policies may have other positive effects).  We need research into the process that make some people fail schools (and much less research on why some other people are failed by schools).

Reardon makes the point that the problem is not with schools that are failing.  It may be that it has to be with schools that are failed…

Another voice for transforming universities into vocational schools

What happens if potential students, their parents, and employers, discover that there are cheaper and more efficient ways of producing “human capital” than colleges?

Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do. Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.    (Brooks 4/4/2013 The Practical University)

I have written about such comments before (December 12, 2012). But there is too much in that vein from the featured New York Times columnists for me to flag them all.  I’ll just note again that this may signal the beginning of the end of the incredible streak of expansion colleges and universities around the world have had since the WWII, the G.I. bill and equivalent programs around the world that transformed universities into institutions for the masses.  The question universities, and those who make their lives in their ecosystems (particularly for faculty in most of the disciplines) has to be: what happens if potential students, their parents, and employers, discover that there are cheaper and more efficient ways of producing “human capital” than colleges?

Potential student to TC anthropologists: what is anthropology good for?

Today, I am trying something new–at least for me in my place [role?] as agent of a degree granting university dependent on student tuition to survive.  We are told to “involve students” in our deliberation about the future of the university, or of our niche (node?) within its network (web?).  So I am trying “crowd sourcing” the revisions we want to make to the general introduction of the anthropology programs at Teachers College, Columbia University, that are currently available on the web, and of the current description of the Masters programs .

The goal is to attract more students to our Masters programs.  Whatever my intellectual and political doubts about the wisdom of this evolution, disciplinary research based departments and programs are getting caught in a (neoliberal?) world (ecology?) where their survival is dependent on the tuition paid by people who are not apprenticed into the research communities (polities?) of their disciplines, but are still interested in that discipline as such.  In clear, the Doctoral Programs in Anthropology need more Masters students who have been admitted as students in anthropology (and not another program at Columbia).  We are not currently very successful at attracting these students.  Other programs at Teachers College are good at it.  There may be a “market” we are not “tapping” into.  One of the reasons may be the packaging.

So we are trying two things.  One is re-writing the general statements about the place of anthropology at Teachers College.  The other is advertising some of our strengths by proposing to students that they “specialize” in “Ethnographic Analysis,” “Global Education,” or “Leveraging Informal Education.”  Such specializations have been successful in attracting students to other programs as they seem to give a more concrete form to the general labels.

So I am asking for your help.  Check the current draft for a general introduction, and then following the links to the Masters Programs and then the specializations: “Ethnographic Analysis,” “Global Education,” “Leveraging Informal Education.”

And then, please, comment, make suggestions for edits, editorialize.

Actually, the whole exercise is multiply interesting.  What, after all, is anthropology good for?  The American Anthropological Association itself is aware that this is an issue that we can not discuss solely among ourselves, in ever more abstract ways.  The question is of concern when people outside anthropology ask it as a preliminary step towards possibly entering its worlds, or deciding whether to follow what it suggests be done in the policy realm, (or funding it).  So, what should faculty in small programs in anthropology located in a professional school say?  What is anthropology, in 200 words?  Compare and contrast two answers from the American Anthropological Association: 1) the classical one as it appears on the main site for the association, and 2) a new version being tested.

So, we are trying our hand at composing 200 word statements about Anthropology And Education and Applied Anthropology that, we hope, are more sensitive to our current environment.  But, perhaps, you may be more in tune with this environment than I may be.  So try you hand also: what is the field in which you are moving towards fuller participation good for? It is not quite an exam question, but it is one you may be asked by representatives of the institutions where you are trying to be employed (or one you may have to answer when applying for research funding).

[and I hope you enjoy the mixed metaphors, and the implied conceit (more on that later)]

Let Business, School & Government collaborate? (!)

What we need to ask is why should colleges be given the task of producing workers? Is there any evidence that they are good at it? Why shouldn’t Business be asked to provide the training that it may be best at imagining is needed?

The answer to that challenge will require a new level of political imagination — a combination of educational reforms and unprecedented collaboration between business, schools, universities and government to change how workers are trained and empowered to keep learning… America today desperately needs a center-right G.O.P. that is offering merit-based, market-based approaches to all these issues — and a willingness to meet the other side halfway. (Thomas L. Friedman. A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 7, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Hope And Change: Part Two. My emphasis)

Thomas Friedman thus concluded an opinion piece celebrating Obama’s re-election: Let Business, School & Government collaborate!

Nothing really new here.  For close to two decades, the choir keeps singing the same hymn whether the director is Republican or Democrat. If ever there is a political consensus here, in government at least, this is it.  And, as this consensus is getting translated into more and more detailed regulations down to the level of measuring the merit of individual teachers on an on-going basis, the consensus is getting less accessible to effective criticism.  “Neo-liberalism,” as many of my students like to call it, is alive and very well.  Actually it is thriving when the G.O.P. in the United States is criticized for not being open to “merit-based, market-based approaches”!

But what is this consensus all about, practically?  Provocatively (I hope) this is about a re-invention of vocational education and it leads me to think about one moment in the history of the interplay between Business and School.

In the 1880s, Business (as represented by Miss Grace Hoadley Dodge) collaborated with School (as represented by the philosopher and future president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler), to found was to become Teachers College. In the origin myth we tell, there was a disagreement between Dodge and Butler about the mission of the college, with Dodge pushing for what she imagined new workers might need in the coming 20th century.  Her eponymous building is dedicated to teaching the “enobling arts of the home” and contains a “Tudor Room” that was the “Table Service Lab” “where exercises in table setting and meal service occurred.”

Butler successfully redirected Dodge’s efforts to the training of teachers.  In effect, Butler, like most intellectuals and academicians to this day, separated the mission of schooling from the vocational training of the future work force.  I am not sure who Butler imagined would train workers into the trades, but I suspect he expected the employers to do this, whether through apprenticeships or other means.  “Education,” that is public schooling, was to be about democracy and the culturing of citizens (Dewey 1916).  Government does not appear in this origin myth though much of justification for state funding of public schools did not emphasize what is now often called the building of “human capital.”  By the end of the 19th century School had insulated itself from Business by encasing it into boards of trustees whose responsibilities were purely financial.  Miss Dodge could fund Teachers College but she could not dictate curriculum.

Business did not give up, and Government got into the act.  One hundred and thirty years after “Dodge vs. Butler” was settled in favor of Butler, a whole set of miscellaneous forces (donors, governments, students, parents) push colleges and universities to be ever more “practical” and, as Government uses its regulatory powers to enforce business requests, to demonstrate that their curricula are indeed practical in the training of workers.  And so Teachers College, which still educates some teachers, survives by (vocationally) training young women (mostly, and still) to work in the expanding bureaucracies of “education” and related administrations—though perhaps not to an extent that would satisfy Thomas Friedman.

Now, when Lawrence Cremin taught me the history of American education, he spent some time tracing the evolution of colleges from seminaries, to finishing schools for the children of the elites, to tools of the state to improve agriculture (land grant universities) to the conduit through which fundamental knowledge was developed (on the German model) (Cremin 1980, 1988).  As usually happens as cultures change, old practices do not disappear though they may get subsumed.  Harvard still has a Divinity School; to this day the University of Chicago College still requires students to take “a total of six quarters in humanities and civilization studies”—thereby preserving the “culturing” mission of the institution.  But Chicago, like Harvard, Columbia, etc. are first known as “research universities”—not as advanced vocational school providing the “skills” Business or Government imagine future workers might need.

Journalists now ask new presidents to require universities to be guided by business people to offer vocational training!  The evolution may have started in the mid-20th century when, through the G.I. Bill for example, college attendance became a mass event aided and abated by Government.  Until then, one mostly got into adult careers through forms of apprenticeships in the various professions and vocations.  But, little by little, a college degree became the essential key for entry—though the curricula that lead to a college degree did not necessarily change, nor the people who were teaching it.  Not surprisingly, starting the 1960s students who had entered college for a career started to rebel.  “Relevance” became a rallying cry.  Half-a-century later, it is Business that has been complaining to Government about the failures of colleges to produce workers with necessary “skills” and Government (through accreditating agencies in the United States) is drafting regulation that School might not be able to escape.

What we need to ask is why should colleges be given the task of producing workers?  Is there any evidence that they are good at it?  Why shouldn’t Business be asked to provide the training that it may be best at imagining is needed?

Where do (psycho/socio)- metricians fit?

Recently, March 28 2012, I spent the afternoon at the plenary session of an “International Conference” on “Educational Assessment, Accountability, and Equity: Conversations on Validity around the World.”  The plenary speaker was Michael T. Kane, “The Samuel J. Messick Chair in Test Validity” at the Educational Testing Service.  He talked about validity as measurement scientists deliberate about it, and about some of their soul-searching when they consider the impact of their measurements.  Or, as I would put it, wearing my “anthropologist of Nacirema” hat, he talked about the misgivings of an obscure priesthood specializing in an abstruse numerology few understand outside their rarified convents.  Kane, as a master in this polity of conjurers of numbers, gave us, the uninitiated or very peripheral, a glimpse of his doubts and those of other masters as they discover that they are now at the very center of political storms where their more abstruse spells are thrown at opponents for all sorts of reasons having little to do with numerology.
NYC value added model for teachers

To the extent that I understand it (and I am very far at the periphery of numerology, or rather, I am at the periphery of the gravity well that might have made me, at some point in my career, a legitimate peripheral participant), it all has to do with the “interpretation” of the test that leads to its being used in a particular case.  But Kane and his peers are not quite where Geertz and his peers have been.  For one, Kane is deeply concerned with specifying and justifying the interpretive steps.  For another, he and is peers have, precisely been thrust into the center, while symbolic anthropologists are pushed even further away from it.

This occasion was the second in recent weeks when I heard thoughtful (psycho-)metricians wonder about the public face of their craft.  I had not suspected how much debate do happen among the scientists of the measurement of individual behavior about what happens with the measurements when these measurements are used outside the world of measurement.  Kane taught me something about the relationship between the “datum” (an answer on a test question) and the inferred “claim” (that Johnny failed the test) and the “warrant” that allows on to make the claim based on the datum.  The warrants themselves are “backed” by empirical studies.  Thus, everything depends on the quality of the studies which back the warrant that allows for the inference.  Things are even more difficult since the various inferences that can be made about the individual as this_test taker can be transformed into inferences about this_field (that is, that Johnny who failed this reading test do not know how to read), and then transformed into even more general properties of the individual as performed in any_field (that Johnny is “with” this or that syndrome), and then transformed into properties of a population (White vs. Black, poor vs. prosperous, American vs. Chinese).

As I listened, I was particularly struck by his discussion of “warrants” in the making of inferences and the place of various logical and mathematical ways of explaining how one gets to the inference.  Listening to this, I understood better why ethnography is looked askance by measurement scientists: we, anthropologists, could be said to be “warrant-challenged” when we watch a cock-fight and then make inferences about humanity…

And then things became truly interesting.  Kane started to talk about a particular type of inference that shift from identification (Johnny is with X or Y) to the meting of high stake consequences (that Johnny should be shifted to a special education classroom, that he should not receive a degree, that he should not be hired or promoted).  He illustrated the difficulties by reminding us of the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power where the issue was the use of a test (or more precisely inferences about the people who had taken the test) for employment, that is as a step in the making of a high stake decision that could have heavy negative consequences.  In effect, the Court extended the notion of validity to include the impact of the test on the life of the taker.

I am about sure that no inference from anthropology has ever been debated in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thus, the Court also, and by implication of course, definitely placed (in the Garfinkel sense) testing as the proper instrument of high stake decision making and the testing scientists as perhaps the most powerful engineers of social structural production (along with the professional in charge of diagnosing decease and its legitimate political implications).  That is, by requiring that tests be “reasonably related” to the job for which the test is required, the Court fully legitimated a process of assembling people and practices that had fully flowered with Thorndike and other measurement specialists when they convinced school people that psychological testing might produce what Dewey and others had appeared to call for: a democratic educational system where the real properties of the child were the sole criteria for the advancement of the child through the rewards of that part of social life (for examples being hired for a job) that the state, through its courts, can regulate.

Thus, the Supreme Court, and by implication of course, placed ETS at the core of the political process and thus made a particular class of scientists the arbiter of this process—all the more so that only they fully understand the means they use (regression formulas and the like) to produce something that later allow human resources personnel, or college admissions officers, make decisions without appearing to have made them.  When I talked about terminating Skynets in my last entry, I did not yet know that I was echoing was some measurement scientists have actually said:

Quantification is a way of making decisions without seeming to decide (Porter 1995: 8).


Porter, T.
1995 Trust in numbers: the pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University press.

What’s a teacher to do?

New York City found out on February 28 that an elementary school teacher I know well rates a “34 (7-73) 32 (5-84)” in Reading and a “63 (41-82) 77 (42-91)” in Math.

A few months ago, teachers had received from their school summary documents that looked like this:
Math result for a NYC teacher
What is an individual teacher to do about any of this?  What, on a day to day basis should a teacher do to “improve” on a 34 and maintain a 77?

These numbers are somewhat related to the wonderful awful formula:

NYC value added model for teachers

What are the values of these variables for any particular teacher? Which of these variables are under an individual’s control?  On what day of the year?

I venture that neither common sense, habituation into any cultural world, guesswork, or any other process proceeding from the individual teacher as teacher or person, is likely to help in answering these questions.  I suspect that a whole new class of professional consultants is now being inducted into fuller and fuller participation in new polities in all sorts of institutions.  They will be sold as the interpreters of the ratings.  They will also be people with children and mortgages who will have ever more interest in keeping the formula opaque.  They will be joined by the psycho/socio-metricians tinkering with the formula to “improve” it so that they can report to the New York Post that “the complaints of the teachers have been addressed,” various software engineers, etc.  And the web keeping everybody in place will get tighter and more difficult to escape.

The question we need to raise is, of course, whether teachers should have to ask questions about manipulating variables on a formula.  The formula may be wonderful as a research tool, but it is awful as a method for hiding political decisions and making it appear that these decisions are removed from precisely political activity at all levels of schooling.  As a political tool it may be intended to take the place of a terminating Skynet where evaluation, like the response to some foreign threat.  Evaluation, it appears, is taken out of the political realm of principals meeting teachers in a school, and into the realm of automatized mechanisms noone quite understand but are un-impeachable, as well as altogether unaccountable.  That people will be hurt people is their problem will the newly powerful say: “good” teachers (the top 50%? 75%? 25%?) “have nothing to fear” and “bad” teachers should fear dismissal (unless the whole exercise is pointless).

Whether any of this will do anything to improve education in any of its senses in the question may be a question one asks at one’s peril.

On Political Deep Play – a coda on experimentation

My entry from March 2 played, very seriously, with the kind of deep play policy makers in the world of schooling engaged in when they released invalid scores purported to tell how well individual teachers taught.  On March 9th, James B. Stewart of the New York Times, asked “Would Americans be better off if General Motors and Chrysler had simply gone bankrupt, without benefit of taxpayer assistance?” and he raised the question of the kind of evidence one could use to answer such a question.  What picked my curiosity is the following comments:

Unlike a science experiment, in which variables can be changed and the experiment repeated, we can’t turn back the clock, let the auto companies go bankrupt and compare the results with what we have today, which is an American auto industry that is, by nearly all measures, healthier than it’s been in many years. G.M. and Chrysler, not to mention Ford, which didn’t get taxpayer money but benefited indirectly, are profitable, hiring more workers, competing more effectively, gaining market share and building better cars and trucks.

He then proceeded to make comparisons with other companies that were, or not, helped by the government when they face bankruptcy.  Essentially, he was using history rather than “evidence-based” empirical research to argue in favor of a political decision.

Now, of course, history, like anthropology, is precisely not an experimental science and yet it may more useful to “politic” makers, that is politicians, as actors, rather than “policy” makers as advisors to the actor.  The very small group (Obama, Geithner, ??) who decided to bail out General Motors could not rely on “evidence.”  They had to rely, in the best sense of all these words, their ideology, their common sense, and the conversations they must have had.

In other words, they placed a major bet.  It looks like they won.  But this was about the deepest of deep plays.  The only deeper I can imagine is Roosevelt or Wilson getting America into World Wars.

Back in New York, it is probably the case that Bloomberg made a similar bet when he had the test scores released.  He could not wait for the “evidence” that this release would lead to better teaching.  By the time this evidence was in, then the political problem would probably have been moot.  We can disagree with his decisions.  We can note the irony that people who have prided themselves on being “data-driven” made a major decision in the absence of data.  But we see the decision for what it is, a political decision, not a policy decision.  And as one approaches political decisions, history, and anthropology, may be more useful than “experimental” social sciences.

How can we convince policy/politic makers that evidence-based research is not the way to a better democracy?