Honey, Can We Talk About the Statistics Kids?

2 May

With a heavy rain falling, and deep in a lengthy sleep, I had a wonderfully vivid dream last night.  Anyone who knows me well, knows I don’t like talking about dreams.  I find other peoples’ dream stories are often long-winded and boring, and I imagine they should feel the same about mine.  So I will keep it simple.  In real life I have a wonderful dog, Snoop.  People who have spent any time with him will attest–he is very unique (right now he has spent the last five minutes sniffing one of my boots, intently.  He may well do this all night.)  In my dream I had managed to clone Snoop.  There was no explanation for how it happened, it just did.  At first this was very cool.  I now had two duplicate copies of the world’s most cool, and unique dog.  Well, I am sure you can see where this is going.  It became very uncool, very fast.  One of the snoops stopped eating, and wasn’t energetic anymore.  He was tremendously sick.  This was incredibly distressing because I didn’t know if this was the original Snoop, which I obviously had a stronger attachment to, or the clone of Snoop.  And I really couldn’t convince myself it mattered.  If I had the ability to (hypothetically) create an infinite number of Snoops, what did I care about the individual Snoops, or should I?  And of course, NOBODY else cared about the Snoops as individuals, they were only fascinated that there were Dupe Snoops.  They could no longer see them as separate entities.  What they cared about was how had I created the clone of Snoop.  They could no longer see the dogs as the dogs, but only the dogs as clones.  As you can imagine, this was a full blown nightmare by the time I woke up.  I had gone from having one dog with a wonderful, unique personality, to two dogs with no personality whatsoever, beyond being a part of the cloned pair.  My Snoop had become the pet version of the most photographed barn in America.  He had ceased to exist as Snoop, at all.

Numbers and Statistics have always interested me.  But not in a way that great sports events, or delicious food, or riding my bicycle along a secluded country road interests me.  Not in a, “Man this is great, and I want to know what it is about this that makes me feel so great and alive,” interest.  More like the interest I have in the way those phenomenally out-there subway preachers, who see absolutely no problem screaming about how we are all going to burn in a fiery pit while I am just trying to commute to work in the morning.  The “I don’t get this, and I never will, but I wish I did,” kind of interest.  I was a crap student in high school math.  I got a C- in the only college math course I took, “Math For Poets” (I shit you not.)  I can barely balance my checking account, and I pretty much know one thing about mathematical equations: the pythagorean theorem (though I don’t know what it is used for.)  I am ok with this.  I had a 300 point discrepancy on my verbal and math SAT, and I probably knew more about math when I was 17 than I do now.  It used to bother me, but the older I get, the more I get a very clear handle on what it is about my learning style, my interests, and my abilities that make me suck at math.  If I am not creating something that has intellectual and artistic value to ME, I’m not interested in it enough to invest the time and energy to learn it.  Straight up.  I don’t pretend to justify this or defend it.  It may be a weakness–I don’t know really–but it is the way I have approached my own education my whole life.  I would spend hours writing short stories for a creative writing course in college.  Stay up for days and nights at a time crafting and redrafting.  But ask me to get around to just about any of the work for that Literary Theory course?  Simple answer: “It’s an essay I don’t give a shit about and will never care about again, that will be read by my professor, and then get lost in my desk, to never be read for eternity.  No thanks.”  It is for this very reason I wrote a half-assed thesis on the political poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Half way into it, I realized I wanted to analyze the political writings of this guy about as much as I wanted to graph parabolas.  What the fuck for?

Look I am not putting down people who geek out over numbers.  I have some friends who have done real well with their lives because they are damn good with numbers.  I have friends who understand numbers in ways that make them more intelligent about sports than I am, and certainly more intelligent about money.  Shit, some of them are even more creative than I will ever be, only they work in numerical figures and not language.  I get it.  But for me, there has always been a distinct and mutually exclusive relationship between numbers and art/creativity.  I could never succeed at math, because to feel success in my life, I have always had to believe I was creating something meaningful and beautiful.  I can’t recall ever having done that with numbers.

Glenn Loury, a Brown University Economist, who HAS created some tremendous work with numbers, has been a part of a positive trend in American academia with regards to numbers: most intelligent people it seems, over the course of the past twenty years or so, have begun urging that we use statistics not to define people, but to show how people are defined.  This is typified in the statement you hear so many people make (almost always in regard to poor, urban, youth):  We don’t want to see you become a statistic!  In this meaning of the word, we mean statistics of young men (and women) dying, being incarcerated, dropping out, becoming an economic drain on society.  Those kinds of statistics, it has been nobly decided are bad.  Loury and others have rightly pointed out that young people become such statistics when they are statistically pigeon-holed to begin with.  When they are offered subpar educations because the numerics of their income dictate they will attend poorer performing schools with less funding, and less qualified teachers and school leaders.  Or because you grow up in a neighborhood with historically high statistics in crime, you will be confronted by a greater police presence, and in turn a higher statistical likelihood of arrest, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of imprisonment, begetting a higher statistical likelihood of a life lived in a cycle of incarceration.  This isn’t theory.  Take a look at the recidivism rates for NYC juveniles.  When we formulate decisions on statistics, when we refuse to address the issues that drive the data, but rather focus on what to do with the data to inform our reaction, we create nothing new and meaningful and beautiful.  We create more numbers.  And more often than not we create numbers we don’t like.  Loury and others are right to decry this trend.  But what of the one corner of the political spectrum where the philosophy is antithetical to this argument?  What about the one realm of American society, where we are trying to take young people–particulary in urban areas–and actually make them statistics?  In America’s schools there is a push (particularly by the “best and brightest”) to turn our kids into numbers.

If you work in a school–particularly a school in a city–the term “data-driven instruction” has surely become such a common part of your lexicon now that you wake up in your sleep blurting it out.  If you sit in department meetings with people from “outside”, or you interview for a position at a new school or a promotion within your own; if you attend a professional development; if you meet with a superintendent to discuss your curriculum and pedagogy, you are FAR more likely to hear the question: “How do you use data to drive your instruction?” than you EVER are to hear the question, “Tell me about a student you have worked with whose accomplishments make you particularly proud.”  I have been asked the first question no fewer than a dozen times in the last two months.  I have never been asked the second question in five years as a teacher.  Something tells me the Glen Loury’s of the world would see this as a problem.  When we have begun to measure our students as measurements in statistical analysis for our own individual growth to the point that we no longer value their individual creations–except as they can be statistically measured–we have set them down the path of being measured as data their whole lives.  Today, they are numbers that measure my awesomeness–or not awesomeness as a teacher–and tomorrow numbers on a roll-call.  When we stop valuing their individual creations we have begun to create the urban youth version of the most photographed barn in America.  We cease to see the individual.

I met Lemmy almost two years ago.  He was the kind of kid I came to my new school to work with: he was basically just like the kids I had taught in the detention centers (had even had his own run-ins with the law) but here he was out in the free world.  I could expect him to attend regularly, especially if I could make a connection with him (along with some of his other teachers) and this is a kid I could make a difference with.  The suppressed “make a difference in the world!” teacher in me was happy.  Lemmy was an average student with average attendance (which at my school is about 60%.)  He came to school high the average amount of days for students that first year (every day.)  But he was funny, and smooth, and behind the gang facade he had the intelligence about him that I knew I could work with.  And that I knew teachers who had an even better touch than me could excel with.  Lemmy got friendly with girl who came to school every day.  Lemmy started coming to school every day.  Lemmy stopped hanging out with his friends getting high every day before school.  Lemmy met his girl, they had breakfast, they came on time, they stayed late.  Lemmy and his girl started working with a video and art program after school, under the guidance of a great mentor and teacher.  Lemmy started seeking me out every day.  Sometimes to work on writing, sometimes to talk about his love of bacon, sometimes to edit video projects in my room and shoot the breeze.  Lemmy is about to graduate, which if you ask ANYBODY who knew Lemmy three years ago if that was a realistic possibility, they would have laughed and said, “We talking about the same Lemmy?”  But Lemmy presents a problem for leaders at my school and schools like mine.  Lemmy–his story, his individuality–makes him what the data-driven monotheists would call an outlier.  There is no statistics or data to describe Lemmy’s transformation.  There isn’t a rubric to measure the impact of having a girlfriend who cares about school.  There is no flawless or objective measurement for the impact of mentors and teachers who committed themselves against odds and reason to a kid left for the statical dung heap.  Indeed outside of the only statistical measurement that almost everyone would agree on–the fairly obvious correlation between Lemmy’s attendance and academic success–and the subjective measurements that individual teachers could measure and track (based of course on individual bias) there is no way to chart the progress Lemmy has made.  And furthermore, there is no way to use his very unique and personal anecdote to inform one’s instructional approach to any other student.  Lemmy is an outlier, who succeeded for reasons particular to his outlier status.  I would submit that Lemmy isn’t actually an outlier, but rather every student is an outlier.  It is extraordinarily difficult to quantify in numbers what happens when different forces come together to create something beautiful and new.  It is impossible to take that quantification and apply it to a completely different experiment.  The education of each student is a new and unique experiment.  We are snowflakes.

Using data (or numerical measurements of students’ results on similar tasks over time) to see what strengths and weaknesses we have as teachers, actually isn’t the worst idea, in theory.  But it would require some proven practice, and to be truly meaningful would be best done in collaboration and not in isolation.  Where it becomes problematic is when we try to use the measurements of success or lack thereof to translate from one student or group of students to another.  And it becomes more dangerous when we begin to have conversations of how we can duplicate a successful approach, whether it is a specific classroom, or indeed an entire school, with a whole different population.  When we cease to look at the individuals to inform approach, because it is easier to look at the numbers.  When we say, I like what we have here, and I want to recreate it.  When we begin to clone.

Call me crazy, but I don’t know how to measure in numbers, and how to chart artifacts that show a person’s growth in the things I value most in education: intellectual curiosity, creation, personal growth, self-satisfaction.  These are statistical outliers.  Plato knew of no measure for them and neither do I.  But I know it when I see it, and I know that try as I might to magically recreate that explosion of brilliance and transmute it from one student to the next, I will never succeed.  Each unit of data refuses to be data, presenting instead a unique and untransferable code of problems, promise, delights and frustrations.  I would hate to come to a point in my career where Lemmy’s position on an excel chart under the “Common Core Stanard E11-12.1” cell means more to me than a discussion about the wonderful “Bacon Candy” his girl gave him for christmas.  At that point I will walk away.  It would indeed be spiritual surrender as a teacher to no longer be able to ask what Murray asks about the most photographed barn in America, every time we meet a new student:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns,          how was it similar to other barns?”

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2 Responses to “Honey, Can We Talk About the Statistics Kids?”

  1. Ybelka May 2, 2012 at 3:46 am #

    You have managed to re ignite in me the passion I use to feel about teaching at a transfer HS that made it so rewarding and hard to quantify. For some reason during the whole “your school sucks” drama I stopped seeing the individual students who make a positive impact and focused on the ones that aren’t yet ready. With 28 days left of the school year I needed that. Thank you!

    • Yo Mista May 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      I think you need to attend the leadership academy….

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