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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naive Reform Proposals: Suggesting Uncertain Means

The little things you haven't got
Could be alot if you pretend
-- "Pretend" by D. Belloc, L. Douglas,
F. Lavere, C. Parman
We expect that almost every experienced adult can talk easily about means and ends, methods and goals. And so they do. We ask a friend,
“What big item do you want to buy this year?”
“A new car.” (end or goal)
“How are you going to get it?”
“Take out a loan.” (means, or method)
Sounds reasonable. Certainly a big enough loan ought to enable him to buy the car he wants. But we might have information that makes the means (the method) less than certain. For example, we reply,
“But you’re out of work, and you already have a lot of debt. Who’s going to lend you much more money?”
Let’s call the means or method in such a situation, “uncertain means” or “uncertain method.”
A new teacher might complain
“My students don’t seem to be finishing their homework. What can I do?”
“Consider the following three suggestions:
1. Keep them after school until 7 PM. That’ll give them time to complete homework.
2. Give them partial lunch detentions for homework purposes. (But let them eat lunch in your room.)
3. Stop giving them homework.
Now, any of these could work, but whether or not they are feasible may depend upon factors beyond your control. Maybe school bus service is not available beyond 4PM. Or maybe there are policies prohibiting eating in the classrooms. Or policies that require giving homework.

Proposed means are only as certain as the resources, the policies and the practices available to support them. Someone might offer to take you on a trip to Mars. If you ask how they’ll do it, they reply, “In a vehicle that will make the round trip.” It’s not likely you’ll take them seriously. (Logically, it makes sense, if there were such a vehicle, then it would be a certain means for going to Mars -- all other things being equal.)

Much of what is suggested quite seriously by presumed “experts” to reform public schools is if this type: uncertain means. For example in a column in USA Today, named “3 ways to improve the USA's teachers,” Wendy Kopp and Dennis Van Roekel ( suggest the following methods (means):
A. Use data to improve teacher preparation.
B. Bring new talent to the teaching profession.
C. Give teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.
“Data,” “new talent,” “professional development,” are all very popular phrases, slogans easily bandied about by the experientially challenged. But these are clearly uncertain methods.

What data are we supposed to get? At what cost? Over what period of time? Requiring whose permission? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

New talent? Talent for what? How will it be identified? With what certainty? And how would such “new talent” be attracted to the profession? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

Professional development? Actual informative, non-soporific activities? To be done when? In place of what present activities? Who will give it? How and by whom will they be identified and determined to be appropriate to the prospective audiences? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

To examine these issues further, see Best Practices? Don’t Bet On It!