Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.

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  1. 最好睇的城市論壇-15/7/2012-怎也撐不住的國民教育-余老師發爛了! | The Journalist
  2. Proponent of Teacher Obsolescence Theory Becomes Obsolete | Diana Senechal

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