Sunday, April 29, 2012

Behind Closed Doors

Two events which are instructive for great education policy hit the media in a big way in the last week.  The first was the debut of the infamous talking pineapple; the second was when New Jersey single dad Stu Chaifetz planted a recording device on his ten year old autistic son and captured a day’s worth of abusive and inappropriate behavior on the part of several of the adults in his son’s self contained autism classroom.
What did both of these events have in common?  They were the product of things that go on behind closed doors.  They are worst case scenarios, examples of what can happen when transparency is abandoned for long periods of time, and people run amok.
The irony of the talking pineapple is that these were the sort of divergent questions we want to have in our classroom bag of tricks.  Many questions in real life have no correct answer, and there is a useful place in education for introducing that incontrovertible fact to students.  That place, however, is most certainly not a bubble test, which measures convergent thinking.  
No, encouraging divergent thinking requires discussion, something that New York State teachers are forbidden with respect to this test.  Had there been some transparency around this test, had it been vetted by real teachers, if test items did not have to hide behind a veil of secrecy, somebody might have flagged this idiocy.  The silver lining here is that maybe the talking pineapple will increase public skepticism about high stakes testing.
Testing companies like secrecy because it allows them to recycle items, keeping costs down and profits up.  We are, however, in an era where tests can destroy people’s careers and hurt children.  Therefore good and fair public policy demands transparency.  We cannot use discredited instruments to hire and fire, to award “merit” pay, or close neighborhood schools.  The public interest here is at odds with the interests of for-profit  testing industry, and the quasi-public education policy apparatus which feeds off it.
The case of little Akian Chaifetz calls for a different type of transparency.  As I listened in horror to the aggrieved Dad, and to the excerpts of child abuse one thing became abundantly clear to me.  Nobody was supervising these people.  The door of that classroom was never being opened.  They were in private practice and they had absolutely no idea what they were doing.  The evidence points to this going on for years, so long that abusive, inappropriate adult behavior had become the cultural norm in that classroom.
In the 21st century, teaching is a team sport.  Had that classroom door been open, had some knowledgeable supervisor or colleague learned early on that these people were clueless, maybe they could have gotten some training, or maybe they could have been encouraged to find a different line of work.  This is not to excuse bad behavior; it is to point out the tragedy that a dad had to wire his kid to achieve the sort of transparency which millions of parents assume when they send their children to school in the morning.  This is why we have administrators and instructional coaches.  Ultimately this was an institutional failure.
Let these be cautionary tales for the education policy world.
On the one hand, the closed door meeting is a lubricant for decision making.  It allows you to get things done.  The messiness involved in transparency can be inefficient.  That conference room meeting can also leverage expertise, allowing policy experts to deploy their knowledge without having to bring novices up to speed.  People can say things in these meetings and make decisions in the relative safety of privacy which can be genuinely useful.
On the other hand, closed doors are inherently undemocratic and elitist.  They carry the assumption that the public is too stupid to participate in public policy.  They create echo chambers and encourage group think, which makes smart people stupid.  Faulty assumptions go unchallenged, and elaborate policy structures are built on sand.  Key stakeholders can be left out, leading to needless conflict when policy is rammed down the throats of those not invited to the table.
The world of education policy is a murky revolving-door world of government agencies, private contractors, foundations, academia and unions, among others.  Sometimes it rides off the rails, like Akian’s teachers, in Jonah Edelman meltdown moments and Wisconsin-style bolt-out-of-the-blue attacks. 
The question of the balance of transparency and closed doors is a divergent question, very much like those about our talking pineapple.  There is no absolute answer.  There is always a trade-off between the benefits of efficiency, and the capacity of transparency to preserve and promote the public good.  Given the choice, I would tend to err on the side of transparency.  You can always fall back on the truth.

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