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The Tyranny of Statistics

By Freda Schwartz — March 01, 1993 6 min read
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I am a lowly English teacher in an urban high school, trying to stimulate intellectual growth among hundreds of teenagers who have come into our school several grades behind in their reading, writing, and math skills. This means that we are expected, in four years, to turn hundreds of young people who are functionally illiterate into mature and literate adults. This at the same time that we are teaching them how to protect themselves from AIDS, enlightening them about everything that is politically correct, and carefully cultivating their self-esteem.

Innovations abound. How can we despair with think tanks, consultants, and high-minded reformers giving us whole language, collaborative learning, ungraded learning experiences, portfolios, and much, much more? Please do not misunderstand. I welcome innovation. I am grateful for any exciting new strategy that comes along, and I am anxious to try it if it sounds promising. It is gratifying to discover new and practical methods of cajoling students into learning. Heaven knows, we can use all the help we can get. I like to think I am still far from being afflicted with terminal cynicism.

On the plus side, I still cannot resist a pedagogical challenge. I believe intensely in the magical power of the human brain, even in the head of an adolescent who has spent the last four to 10 years being told, in a hundred different and subtle ways, that it’s OK not to learn, for fear his or her self-esteem might be dented. I still experience an adrenaline surge when a youngster who has always been a poor English student and hated reading tells me he or she couldn’t put down a book. I still drool inwardly when the light of comprehension breaks on my students’ faces. And when they say, “You’re hard, Mrs. Schwartz; you force us to think,” I know I am still in the right line of work.

I also know there are no simple solutions to the problems that plague our educational enterprise. But there are two very basic tools that many decisionmakers seem to have discarded: time and money. Unfortunately, they have been replaced by something very dangerous: statistics.

Two significant events at my school, occurring within the first two days of the term, precipitated this essay. The first took place at our opening faculty meeting. Our principal noted that the city’s university system had been complaining that thousands of high school graduates in our city enter the university so drastically deficient in the most basic academic skills that it is impossible to provide all the remediation needed. And, our principal said, employers in the private sector were bemoaning the alarming lack of those same basic skills among the city’s high school graduates. In short, we are handing diplomas to youngsters who have not learned what they need to learn to qualify as responsible adults.

The second event concerned me personally, along with two or three colleagues in my department. Taken in context with the first event, it is bone-chilling. The superintendent of our district projected a goal to improve the passing statistics in his district; he naturally apprised our principal of this concern, who in turn reproached our departmental supervisor because some teachers in his department had generated unacceptable passing statistics last term. In what he termed “a highly professional conversation,” our supervisor scolded us, individually, for our unacceptable statistics and advised us that he would be closely monitoring our classes.

It is common practice among some of our colleagues, either out of elitist contempt for our working-class and welfare students or weariness from dealing with a misguided and unreasonable administrative bureaucracy, to pass at least 75 percent of their students; some never pass fewer than 90 percent. Needless to say, this policy is never questioned, but rather encouraged. Am I whining? Am I making excuses? I invite observers to think what they will; my bureaucratically crippling punishment is not really the issue here. Certainly those of us who adhere to our requirements are being harassed; there is no other way to describe such heavy-handedness.

But the deeper meaning in this tragedy of errors should be clear to any sane, responsible, thinking adult. At no time during the conversations with our supervisor did he even once talk about learning; just a sickening repetition of the word “statistics” and his fear of dire consequences to his own status if he didn’t succeed in getting us to improve our statistics. Meanwhile, in a city that had to open five new schools last fall, the educational budget was not expanded but actually cut. Students who needed to make up courses could not do so because there were not enough of those courses to accommodate all the students required to take them for the first time.

Certainly, bullying teachers into lowering their expectations and “improving” their statistics will not solve this problem, unless we are more interested in getting students off our registers than in seeing to it that they learn all that we are duty-bound to teach them. One important ethic we try to teach our students is the value of deferred gratification—the old work ethic and the rewards of patience coupled with diligence and determination. Most adolescents operate on the principle of instant gratification; they want what they want now and are not willing to wait. They make judgments on the basis of what they see on the surface here and now and are not willing to probe more deeply into a situation. What a shame that our offsite education administrators are guilty of the same immature shortsightedness.

When a district superintendent visits a school, he or she looks into a sparsely populated classroom and assumes that the teacher is not doing his or her job. Down the hall is a better attended class; obviously, Teacher B is a better teacher than Teacher A. Perhaps. On the other hand, the most unpopular teachers in most high schools are usually the ones with the highest expectations. Because they are in the minority, their credibility is undermined by colleagues who make smaller demands on students.

In the same way, looking at passing statistics tells less about what students have learned than what teachers are pressured into saying they have learned. If this were not so, we would not be confronted with such alarming deficiencies among the nation’s high school graduates. Taking the argument a tired step further, we are warned that if we insist on higher expectations, dropout rates will soar. Those who advance this argument either have forgotten or perhaps never themselves learned about the importance of deferred gratification; the rise in dropout rates would level off soon enough, and the rewards reaped would far outweigh the initial losses.

Let us continue with the innovations. Trial and error is probably the most thoroughly time-tested method of progress. But let us not discard the precious lessons we should have gleaned from ages of trial and error: There is no substitute for time and patience and the money it costs to apply them. Our students need more time to learn the growing body of skills and knowledge necessary in their adult lives, and the offsite administrators, along with the students, need to learn the patience to see the enterprise through. Making hasty judgments on the basis of one-dimensional statistics will only exacerbate the problem.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Tyranny of Statistics


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