Whoops-a-Deasy!

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When I was a kid in Michigan and we drove over a bump in the road, or someone slipped, or made a mistake, my mom would exclaim, “whoops-a-daisy!”  Just last week I learned the correct spelling.

John Deasy, LAUSD Superintendent, almost resigned last week, but then didn’t.  According to a local paper, he threatened to resign earlier this summer, too.   In September, he began distributing iPads to every student.  A week later, implementation stopped in its tracks.  (Something about shocking revelations that students hacked into the devices to play games, and apparently no one had thought about what to do if the iPads got lost, broken, or stolen.)  In August, the iPad plan was going to cost $1 billion.  In October, cost estimates rose.

What to make of John Deasy?  He speaks earnestly of improving student outcomes.  Test scores and graduation rates are up, suspensions down.  Yet, he keeps rocking the old LAUSD Impala into every iPothole in the road, careening from one controversial decision to the next.

Perhaps it’s time to ask some deeper questions: Why do we keep bouncing from crisis to crisis? How might we change this pattern?

As I’ve thought about these questions, I keep coming back to two things:

First, the time I heard John Deasy speak at UCLA about a year ago.

Second, a paper that Donald Campbell originally wrote in 1971, which, coincidentally, was the year I was born.

First, when I heard John Deasy speak, he started his speech by asking if anyone in the audience was a student of mythology.  I thought he said methodology, so I raised my hand, and then was rather embarrassed when he asked me to comment on the Greek myth he had used as an analogy.  I say this by way of struggling to excuse my silence when he said something that actually did need correcting.  I’ll try to atone for that now.  But I’m also struggling to give you a sense of John Deasy’s charisma.  He’s a good speaker.  He tells interesting stories, and he cares about the things he talks about.  That night, he was talking about improving teaching, improving teacher evaluation, and not accepting excuses.

“I know some people are uncomfortable about this,” Deasy said.  “But if you want ‘uncomfortable,’ come with me to visit some of our 23,000 students who are homeless.  Not roofless, homeless.  These are kids who have no shelter to sleep in.  They are coming to school with incredible challenges in their lives.  And the only hope they have is to graduate career and college ready.  And the only hope they have for that is to be in a class with a good or great teacher, not just one year, but every year.  That’s our challenge.  We need to provide every student with a good or great teacher.”

This is not an exact quote, but it is close.  And he has expressed similar sentiments on other occasions.  23,000 children in LAUSD are homeless, and the solution is…create a teacher evaluation system so that they have better teachers.

He probably didn’t quite mean that a teacher is more important than a home, but it got me thinking.  From a certain perspective, his logic is compelling and even unassailable.  The Superintendent’s primary, perhaps only, responsibility is to ensure that every student gets a good to great education, and the teacher is the person primarily responsible for delivering that.

Yet, when John Deasy wonders why substantial numbers of teachers are suspicious of his plans (a union poll in April found that 16,000 teachers had “no confidence” in him while only 1,600 expressed support), he might also wonder why he speaks of the problem of homeless students as a reason to revamp teacher evaluation, while other area leaders, such as Kobe Bryant, are working on more direct solutions.  There are realistic, research-based plans that hope to provide homes to every child, and every person, in LA.  But no one questioned Dr. Deasy’s rhetorical flourish that day.

Perhaps we’ve reached a point where no one is actually listening to anything.  One side favors reform.  The other side supports teachers.  Winning requires exaggerating your side, and vilifying the other.  Listening not required, even to your own words.

It’s clear that John Deasy is committed to making teacher evaluations tougher and making teachers better.  But what if, fresh from the stress of facing his own rigorous evaluation, he stopped and said out loud,

“Whoops-a-Deasy!  Teacher evaluation in LAUSD needs changing.  But, we can’t ignore the need to end homelessness, fight poverty, and address the many other needs of children and parents in LA.  Schools and teachers can’t fix all our problems by themselves, and a good teacher is no substitute for a good roof.  So this year, I’m going to ask Warren Fletcher, and every teacher, principal, nurse and bus driver, to join me (and Kobe) at Homewalk to raise money to end homelessness…”?

What if, in other words, John Deasy used his high profile position to fight alongside teachers for broader improvements in the lives of children?

And, here’s a second what if: What if we all stopped making exaggerated claims for our preferred solutions in our perpetual debates, and instead admitted that every idea has limitations?  We might then try to design policies that give us some information.

This brings me to Campbell’s 1971 paper.  Campbell argues that social scientists should prepare for, and strive to develop, an “experimenting society,” a society that is “scientific in the fullest sense of the word,” based on “honesty, open criticism, experimentation, willingness to change once-advocated theories in the face of [new] evidence.”  Campbell contrasts such a society from “an earlier use of the term scientific.”  In those early days, before I was born, people apparently applied the word “scientific” to talk about how one scientific theory is judged as true, and then “on the basis of this scientific theory, extrapolations are made” to design optimal programs.  In other words, in the old days, some people used “scientific evidence” solely to justify their own preferred theory.

But what if, if we have come to believe that every student might need an iPad, we followed Campell’s advice and continued to test this idea as we implement it?  What if certain schools were assigned iPads for every student, other schools were assigned Nexus tablets, and other schools were provided with a school nurse or a music teacher?  Is anyone on the School Board or in the Superintendent’s office completely convinced that the students who received iPads would be better off?  Campbell hopes that, “Just as in science objectivity is achieved by the competitive criticism of independent scientists, so too the experimenting society will provide social organizational features making competitive criticism possible at the level of social experimentation.”  An iPad experiment seems like just about the perfect place to start such a society, since no one really knows what the effects of giving every student an iPad will be.

Campbell’s vision could work in other areas as well.  Instead of rhetorical battles over competing theories of teacher evaluation, why not test out the district’s evaluation plan in some schools and UTLA’s plan in others?  (Disclosure: I helped work on UTLA’s plan, so I happen to think it’s a pretty decent one.)

But instead, we still seem stuck in the “earlier use of the term scientific,” stuck in the days before I was even born.  Stuck in a society that pays homage to scientific evidence, but plays hooky on practicing the scientific method.

In fact, it may be worse than that.  We may get the worst of “science” without its benefits.  We are addicted to technocratic solutions, so we rush to embrace sophisticated value added models and smooth iPads as the answers, but we have no patience for scientific debate, so we shout loudly for our preferred solutions and never take the time to figure out what might really be working.

Three more lessons we can take from Dr. Campbell’s birthday present to me: First, he speaks of the real possibility that he is wrong in advocating for an experimenting society: “we should keep open the possibility that we will end up opposing [the idea we are now advocating]”.  So we all need to be quick to exclaim, “Whoops-A-Deasy!  My bad.  Let’s try that again in a different way.  What do you think we ought to do?”

Related to that, Campbell lays out the drawbacks of an experimenting society, including the genuine fear of evaluation and the “measurement machinery” that “is understandably feared, and is more to be feared the more elaborate and scientific it appears to be.”  Sounds like a dead ringer for many people’s fears about value added models for teacher evaluation.  And it seems like Dr. Deasy is less than fond of harsh evaluation himself, so perhaps we can all remember to assume the best of intentions in our rivals, even when they seem afraid or suspicious of “reform.”

Finally, he calls out Machiavelli by reminding us that we will never get to the “asymptote of perfection….Ends cannot be used to justify means, for all we can look forward to are means. The means, the transitional steps, must in themselves be improvements.”

So, if all we can be sure of is that neither a new evaluation system nor a new iPad will bring about nirvana, then perhaps we’d better be sure that we decide on the new gadgets to try out through transparent procedures which will at least teach us something in the process.  After all, isn’t this whole thing supposed to be about learning?

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