“Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.”
– Albert Einstein –
My friend Sam is a gravitational physicist who recently made a disappointing foray into high school teaching. In his late career enthusiasm for kindling new flames of lifelong interest by sharing his research passions with high school students, he was caught up short by the constraints of the public system. Accountability and compliance kept him from being able to light any intellectual fires, and he went back to the lab before a single school year had gone by.
Pondering the conundrum of standardized curriculum and standardized accountability, Sam described it as a poorly-engineered feedback control system.
A feedback control system is a process used to manipulate an output variable in a dynamic system. All that’s required is a desired output, a way to measure or quantify that output, and a mechanism for altering the output.
Engineers design feedback loops to regulate system variables using mechanical input and output processes. Let’s say we want to regulate the temperature of a room. We install a thermostat to serve as the controller. The thermostat measures room temperature and signals the system when the temperature departs significantly from the desired setting. A heater is used as the mechanism that alters the temperature. When the temperature drops too low, the heat is switched on. When the temperature exceeds the ideal, the heater is shut off. Fairly simple.
Unless it’s not. According to Sam, the more complex a system is, the more difficult it is to protect all other elements of the system from the unplanned consequences of implementing the chosen feedback mechanism to achieve the desired output. The system just described may work almost flawlessly in one room, but in a home with many rooms, regulating the temperature is a far more complex proposition. Distances, delays, doors and other complicating factors wreak havoc with the control loop that is simple only in theory.
Feedback control systems embedded in complex contexts are notorious for having unintended impacts on variables that are not measured. In the example of the heating system, variables such as the humidity of the home and the house plants’ consequent need for additional water are impacted by the system, though these effects are unlikely to be taken into account. Perhaps the dog even wakes his owner repeatedly in the middle of the night because his water dish is evaporating more quickly than usual. The pet owner drives to work sleep-deprived, and fails to slow down at a railroad crossing. Indirectly, the feedback control system has just caused a train wreck.
In our eagerness to improve education, we have engineered an oversimplified feedback control system to dial up the so-called “quality” of our schools mechanistically. We have reduced the deep philosophical complexity of what it means to be well-educated to a few output variables that can be easily measured. By attaching high stakes, we force our schools to focus obsessively on creating mechanisms for producing uniform increases in these outcomes and these outcomes alone.
Not only have we diverted all attention and resources away from less easily quantifiable dimensions of our childrens’ growth and well-being, but our high-stakes feedback control loop undermines reverence for human diversity, and for the curiosity and original thinking that has long been a signature characteristic of the well educated mind.
Allow me to invoke my Cupcake Metaphor.
Our schools are bakeries – contestants in a cupcake contest. The students are our cupcakes. As a society, we are so concerned about the quality of our cupcakes that we feel obliged to measure them somehow, to ensure that all the contestants are taking their tasks seriously, using public funds responsibly, and leaving no cupcake behind. It is very difficult to measure the quality of a cupcake.
Everyone knows that size matters, though, so we measure for that.
Each year, the state comes to every bakery with straightforward, old-fashioned rulers, to measure the height of our cupcakes. The aroma, the texture, the color, the healthfulness of the ingredient mix, the richness and complexity of the flavor combinations, the originality of the design and decoration – these qualities are too ineffable to be accounted for on our spreadsheets. It would be difficult to compare our cupcakes on the basis of any one of these attributes, let alone take all of them into serious consideration.
The consuming public has no patience for the lengthy, narrative individual cupcake report. Just give us the simple stats. Bakeries with the highest cupcake numbers merit news headlines and performance bonuses. Bakeries with consistently smaller cupcakes are shut down or turned over to private companies who promise consistently better performance.
Size is a characteristic one might consider in a search for the ideal cupcake (though one has to wonder whether it is anywhere near the most important). But, going back to the feedback loop, if it is the only variable measured and accounted for, the feedback system will direct all its energies toward achieving competitive annual gains in cupcake size alone. Other dimensions of excellence in cupcake baking will cease to be cultivated. Smaller cupcakes, no matter how special and perfect in their own way, will increasingly be regarded as unworthy.
We have accepted that simply measuring math and language scores will tell us how good our schools are. On the surface, these output expectations make sense: it’s useful for children to learn to read, write, and do basic calculations. In practice, however, educating a child is a far more complex endeavor than we can assess using only these tests of knowledge acquisition. It’s critical that we recognize the dangers – the powerful, long-term, unintended consequences of the simple feedback control loop we’re acceding to through high-stakes standardized testing.
Physical education, music, theater and the visual arts, seminar and discussion classes, team building and group problem solving, critical thinking, individual initiative and self-regulation, field trips, after school sports, and even recess have been sacrificed wholesale at the altar of uniform quantifiable growth in standardized reading and math scores.
Drop-out rates have sky-rocketed. Teacher morale has plummeted. There’s always enough money for more and better tests, but if you want paint brushes, you have to hold a bake sale.
You don’t have to be a gravitational physicist to notice that we’ve engineered our entire education system to produce gains in a small number of content areas at the expense of a topical, timely, individualized, richly integrated, liberal education. Worse yet, we are cultivating compliance, conformity and dependence rather than adaptability and agency.
What can we do?
First, we must intentionally stop giving credence to the numbers. We can not allow our children to become casualties of a system engineered to produce maximum quantifiable gains in large populations through an oversimplified feedback control loop. We must be committed to cultivating integrated, flexible, resourceful, passionate, and empowered members of society – seekers of truth, justice, harmony, compassion, and sustainability.
Second, we can’t hope for all children to have the same experiences; far less should we hope for uniformity of outcomes. If we seek equality, it is equality of access we seek for our children – access to engaged and empathetic adults, to alluring environments, to joyfully industrious learning cultures, and to welcoming and inspiring communities.
That will look different for every cupcake.
We can not let ourselves be hypnotized by the straw man of uniform outcomes.
Finally, it takes a lot more heart and time and energy to regard each cupcake as a unique, self-constructing, self-organizing individual than it does to open the packaged curriculum and bake children in batches. If your children go to work every day under the loving supervision of passionate and dedicated adults who appreciate your one-of-a-kind cupcakes in all their fabulous diversity, you are among the most fortunate parents on the planet. Don’t forget to say thank you.