It’s a Numbers Game

“Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Ray BradburyFahrenheit 451

As I sat nestled into a study carrel on the second floor of the library, nose buried in Ravitch’s Death and Life of the Great American School System, I encountered something that transported me back to a passage I recently read aloud to my eighth graders.  Captain Beatty, the ironically intellectual anti-intellectual fire captain, bursts forth with the above quote to help Montag better understand the intellectual trajectory that lands them in their current situation.  When people have plenty of numbers, data, and statistics, Beatty contends, they experience a kind of simulacrum of knowledge–possessed of information yet lacking understanding.

In her discussion of the data- and statistics-driven educational research spawned by the accountability mandate of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Ravitch often touches on the idea of quantitative research displacing qualitative analysis.  Writing about value-added assessment, she describes how computer data makes it easy for people to assemble, analyze, and evaluate student performance to determine teacher effectiveness.  Ravitch observes that with such tools, analysts “did not need to enter the classroom, observe teachers, or review student work to know which teachers were the best and which were the worst” (180).  By examining the numbers, statisticians turned educational theorists were able to make suggestions and draw conclusions that could have dire consequences for teachers, administrators, and entire schools.  As a result, “Discussions of what to teach and what constituted a quality education receded into the background; those issues were contentious and value-laden, not worthy of the attention of the data-minded analysts” (180).

It was that notion of the contentious and subjective nature of honest investigation into complex matters that sent my mind tumbling toward Beatty’s lecture in Montag’s house.  The most sinister and discomforting aspect of Fahrenheit society is not the government-mandated censorship, but the fact that the populace no longer has a sense of what is missing.  Professor Faber, a sympathetic would-be revolutionary, explains this idea to Montag, noting that they really don’t need the firemen anymore because people are no longer interested enough to challenge the system.

Of course, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel that explores an extreme possibility within a dystopian future, but its admonition against complacency is instructive in the context of educational research.  In a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, we often gravitate toward the comfort of objectivity.  However, the reality is that something as complicated and fundamentally human as education does not readily lend itself to analysis based entirely on facts and figures.  If we are to hold teachers accountable for their performance, we owe it to them to base such accountability on comprehensive assessments that incorporate both quantitative and qualitative data.  Though it may require more time and funding to do the necessary work, we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our country.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “It’s a Numbers Game

  1. Pingback: Reading Log Audit | Wandering Minds

  2. dcrovitz

    Interesting and spot-on connection. I really need to read that novel again. I read a couple of education blogs regularly (including “Get Schooled” by the AJC’s Maureen Downey) and one of the more depressing features is the regularity of certain lines of argument in the commenting section. No matter how artfully explained away, there is certainly a seduction–an obvious “common sense” if you will–to what numbers appear to say. Add that to the truisms of the business world, which many people believe can be transplanted to education, and we have a very persistent and attractive meme.

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