The Low-Inference Room

seatbeltOne Tuesday morning in June, a cohort of one hundred novice principals was escorted into a classroom, ordered to fill out a checklist, and then herded into the Low-Inference Room, where they were assigned seats by number and told to fasten their seat belts. “These seats come with seat belts because systemic change is quite a ride,” said a booming voice through the loudspeakers. “You probably don’t want to change, and the teachers are even more resistant than you. So be prepared for some discomfort.”

Bewildered, the principals looked up, down, and around them. Their escort, a consultant named Gil Hines, walked slowly around the room, inspecting the seat belts.

“Which component in the Danielson rubric are we evaluating today?” the voice fairly screamed. “Number 24, provide the answer.”

“Number 24, that’s you, Nina Perotta,” said Hines. “Everyone check your seat numbers, because there won’t be any excuses next time.”

“Which component are we evaluating? It’s on the tip of my brain, it’s something about assessment…”

“Unprepared!” bellowed the voice. “Number 24 receives zero and a warning in the file. Number 96, which component are we evaluating today?”

“Today we are evaluating Component 3c, ‘Engaging Students in Learning’; specifically, the second item, ‘Grouping of students.’”

“Correct! Now, everyone say that together. “Component 3c, second item, ‘Grouping of Students.’”

“Component 3c, second item, ‘Grouping of Students.”

“Are we looking at anything else today? Number 57, are we looking at anything else?”

“Well, I always try to see what’s going on in a lesson when I….”

“Zero for number 57. This brings us to our lesson for today. Today we are going to learn low-inferencing. By the end of the lesson, all principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.” The objective suddenly appeared on a large screen. “Number 63, read the aim out loud for us.”

“All principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.”

“Correct. Number 15, read the aim aloud again.”

“All principals will be able to deliver a five-second low-inference evaluation of component 3c, item 2.”

One principal was sobbing. A few others tried to turn around but found they could not move. Two more straps had somehow emerged and fastened their shoulders to the chair.

The voice in the loudspeaker was now accompanied by a steady, quiet electronic drumbeat. “Now, I am going to deliver the lesson on low-inferencing,” the voice said. “Low-inferencing goes against everything you have been taught. You have been taught to interpret the world around you, to make judgments about what you see, to fill in the blanks in order to make sense of things. Low-inferencing is just the opposite. Low-inferencing is about reporting what you see, no more, no less, and refraining from any and all interpretation. Now, I am going to give you an example, and then I will give you an activity.”

A video of a classroom appeared on the screen. Students were working in groups; the teacher, who had been circulating from group to group, paused and said, “You have been grouped today according to your proficiency in graphing, but if any of you feel that you have been put in the wrong group, you are welcome to move to a different table right now.” The video stopped.

“Now, did anyone see the aim on the board?” the voice continued. “Number 88, did you see the aim?”

“It was to graph the sine function, I think,” said Number 88, the one who had been sobbing earlier.

“Good. Therefore, is the grouping appropriate to the aim of the lesson?”

“It appears so.”

“Not ‘appears.’ Yes or no.”

“Yes.”

“So I am going to rate the teacher as ‘effective’ in this category, at least. Now, what about students’ own control over their grouping? I am going to answer this for you, in the interest of time. For a teacher to be rated ‘highly effective’ in this category, the students would have to initiate changes of grouping. Here we see the teacher giving the students the opportunity to change groups, but this did not come from the students. Therefore, the teacher will be rated ‘effective’ but not ‘highly effective.’”

“But—“ Several principals began to speak up at once, and then shrieked in pain.

“This is for you to implement, not to question. Everyone must implement it in exactly the same way. Now, think back on the classroom you visited this morning. What did you see in terms of grouping and in terms of grouping only? Number 7, what did you see?”

“This doesn’t seem fair because—“ Suddenly Number 7 let out a long, agonized scream, through which the throbbing of his chair could be heard.

“Number 10, what did you see?”

“I saw no grouping at all. It was a whole-class lesson.”

“Wrong, but you get partial credit. A whole class is still a group. The question is, is this grouping appropriate to the students and to the instructional outcomes, and do the students have control over it? Number 34?”

“It’s impossible to tell, because…” Number 34 winced.

“Wrong. You may have seen a student looking out the window. This means the student was not engaged. This means the grouping was not appropriate for that student.”

“But that’s an interpretation!” Number 34 exclaimed. Her chair began to shake and buzz, and she didn’t speak again.

Engagement is engagement,” said the voice. “There’s no interpretation there. Either the students are engaged or they aren’t. If even one child is unengaged, we can low-inference that something is at least slightly wrong with the grouping. Now, using your clickers, give this teacher a rating. If you get it wrong, your chair will tell you, and you may try again. The results will show in a bar graph on the screen.”

At first the bar graph showed many “effective” ratings. Then, after many screams, cries, and groans, the “Ineffective” bar grew to 100 percent.

“I am very pleased with you,” said the voice, as a soothing melody began to play. “You have all achieved the instructional aim of the lesson. What’s more—pardon the joke—you were all engaged.”

The principals were then escorted into a lavishly decorated room with appetizers and champagne. “Change is painful at first,” the voice said over the loudspeaker, “but as you see, there are rewards. After this reception, you will all go together to a spa for the rest of the day; the buses are waiting outside.”

Later that morning, the teacher received notice that one hundred principals had rated her ineffective and that she no longer had a job.

Superintendent Tells Principals What to Think

Aphronesis, CA—In an emergency Sunday-morning meeting, Superintendent Regina Streng announced to 500 principals that they would henceforth be told what to think about subjects ranging from politics to pedagogy to pineapples.

“Many of you are under the mistaken impression,” said Streng, “that, as school leaders, you should be exercising independent judgment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your job is to exercise the judgments we provide for you.” A murmur swelled up in the hall; she waited until it subsided.

“We need unanimity and teamwork,” she continued, “in order to move forward with reform. Remember that you are setting an example for classroom teachers, who must be team players at all times.”

“Isn’t teaching an intellectual profession by nature, and doesn’t intellect involve independent judgment?” asked a principal in the crowd.

Streng laughed. “In a few select cases, that might be true,” she said, “but let’s face it. We’ve invested significant resources in reducing the intellectual substance of teaching, and our efforts have largely paid off. Do you think a composer or physicist would want to spend all day teaching kids how to make ‘mind maps’ or how to choose the right multiple-choice strategy? Of course not. That’s the way it should be. Research has shown that effective teachers are not intellectuals, especially when the emphasis is on non-intellectual tasks.”

“But what about the students?” asked another. “Aren’t they supposed to be learning critical thinking? How are we supposed to teach it, if we don’t practice it ourselves?”

Streng nodded sympathetically. “I hear what you are saying,” she replied. “Many have raised that concern, and it’s a real concern, but it’s based on a misconception. You see, the kind of critical thinking we want kids to have is the kind that’s employable in the 21st century. That is, all thinking “outside the box” should follow the rubric laid out by the employers. They will often call for it—don’t get me wrong—but they will specify just what kind of critical thinking it should be, how it should be structured, and what it should contain.”

The noise grew to such a level that the moderator, Susan Sandstrom, stepped up to the microphone. “Just a reminder that we called this meeting in order to accomplish essential tasks,” she said. “Superintendent Streng has given up her valuable personal time for this occasion. Now we must move on to the how-to part of the session.”

A website appeared on a large screen behind the superintendent. “We have created a database of correct opinion,” announced Streng, “which is one hundred percent current and searchable. If you are ever in doubt about what to think about a political candidate, for example, you need only enter his or her name in the search box—let’s see, I’m typing in Fred Berenger—and here you have the result. ‘Dangerous obstructionist. Not to be trusted or supported. Not to be mentioned by principals or teachers.’ We have staff continually updating the database, so that it includes the most recent issues, even the weather.”

“Oh, what are we to say about the weather?” cried a jubilant voice.

“Let’s see, let’s see. Weather, May 19, 2013. ‘The current weather does not affect performance on upcoming state tests.’ There you have it. But that reminds me of another feature of this website. It doesn’t just tell you what to think and say. It tells you how to say it.” She clicked on a link to “power words and acknowledgment phrases.” “Now you never have to be at a loss for words or send out mixed messages,” she said. “You can even display the ‘power word of the day’ on monitors throughout your school.”

Sandstrom returned to the microphone. “Thank you so much, Regina, for bringing us together today. Principals, let’s all give Superintendent Streng a triple ‘woot’! You will receive free login instructions on your way out.”

A few faint ‘woots’ were heard in the crowd, but they weren’t triple. Superintendent Streng commented later that a follow-up training would be needed, as many principals were still stuck in independent thought.

Principals, Do You Know Your Power Words?

My satirical pieces are often mistaken for true stories. But here’s a true story that I would have mistaken for satire, had I not read it in the Dallas Morning News.

Mike Miles, the new Dallas schools superintendent, has directed principals to use “power words” and “acknowledgment phrases” when speaking with parents and others. The Dallas ISD has even printed a booklet of “power phrases and remarks.”

For instance, a principal might say, “We are all about improving student performance and the quality of instruction; that is the expectation.”

The “acknowledgment phrases” include “It depends,” “That’s true,” or “Actually, I disagree.” Principals are encouraged to use them to preface one of 13 statements, such as “Our work will be professional, equitable, rigorous and student-focused.”

The reporter, Matthew Haag, discovered that the Dallas ISD had paid consultant Merrie Spaeth, of Dallas-based Spaeth Communications, Inc., to help craft these words and statements. Spaeth, Miles, and DISD communications chief Jennifer Sprague collaborated on the project.

There’s a catch, though: half-scripted dialogue doesn’t work. It has to be all scripted or not. Spaeth et al. should have come up with power phrases for the parents as well. Then principals and parents could have real meaningless conversations, such as the one that follows.

(The principal’s words below are all taken from the article, except for her last two sentences. The parent’s words are made up.)

Principal: “The superintendent’s plan brings stability and a clear direction to the district.”

Parent: “I agree. The superintendent is proactive and goal-oriented.”

Principal: “That’s true. Destination 2020 will take five to eight years to achieve, but we will make significant progress in one year.”

Parent: “I am proud to be a member of this achievement-centered team. My son will pitch his literacy growth action plan at the next goal-implementation assembly.”

Principal: “We are all a team at the school.”

Parent: “Indeed; the true team player sees accountability as a game-changer.”

Principal: “I have to learn more power phrases before I can continue this conversation. Good day.”

Parent: “We are all lifelong learners here. Good day.”

One could even use the “power word generator” (created by Daniel Lathrop of the Dallas Morning News) to keep the conversation going. When you don’t have to make sense, why stop, ever?

The Mayor’s Dream Dialogue

The New York State Legislature has passed a law prohibiting the publication of teachers’ test score ratings but allowing parents to view them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t happy about this. He has decreed, therefore, that principals and assistant principals shall call all the parents to inform them of their right to see the scores.

Now, I am sure he has heard from many a reputable source about the problems with value-added ratings and the importance of regarding them skeptically. Yet he remains convinced that these ratings hold Truth.

But what makes him think principals agree with him? What makes him sure that they’ll say what he wants them to say on the phone? What does he hope they’ll say?

Perhaps he is hoping for a million conversations like this:

Principal: Hello, may I please speak with Leonora Thonge?

Ms. Thonge: Speaking.

Principal: Good morning, Ms. Thonge. This is Principal Eigenvalue of your son’s failing school P.S. 2345. I am calling to tell you that you may come to the school to view your teachers’ value-added ratings–that is, the ratings based on test score data.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, please tell me now! I have been desperate for the truth!

Principal: I would like to… but the ARIS database is down, and I am not allowed to give you the information over the phone. The union has my hands tied, you see. That’s one of many reasons why you should consider a charter school for Bernard.

Ms Thonge: I understand. I will be there shortly.

(Half an hour later, in the principal’s office.)

Ms. Thonge (weeping): His English and math teachers are both below average? And I thought they were so intelligent, so caring…

Principal (handing Ms. Thonge a box of tissues): There, now. It’s common for parents and students to think well of a teacher. That’s why we need the data to set the record straight.

Ms. Thonge: Are you sure these ratings are correct? I have heard that they are often wildly inaccurate.

Principal (in a confidential whisper): Don’t believe it. These are based on hard data and state-of-the-art formulas, and that’s as true as true can be.

Ms. Thonge: But what am I to do now? Where am I to take my Bernard, my poor little boy?

Principal: Well, as you may know, we’re a turnaround school. This means we will be firing half of the teachers soon. The ones we keep will be the ones with above-average ratings. I’m the Interim Turnaround Principal and won’t be here much longer myself. So you are welcome to wait it out. However, it’s a gorgeous day, and I suggest you go shopping!

Ms. Thonge: What do you take me for? Do you think I want to buy anything after hearing this shattering news?

Principal: No, no, I meant school-shopping! You can ask for their value-added scores and choose the school that promises the most growth for Bernard. I will recommend a few for you.

Ms. Thonge: Do they have a Shakespeare program, like this school does? Bernard loved the Shakespeare so much. He sometimes had the whole family act out scenes.

Principal: Shakespeare isn’t on the test. That’s part of what dragged  our school down: tearching things that weren’t on the test. The schools I’m recommending are completely test-aligned–or will be, once they start. They’re all brand-new. This will be good for your son. There won’t be any history to hold him back.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, thank you, thank you for putting my son first!

Principal: Thank the data. Without the data, none of this would be possible. We would all be trapped in our human ways.  In fact, I’m about to go to Data Mass, which starts at noon. You are most welcome to join me.

Ms. Thonge: Thank you! I will join you in adoring the data, from which all blessings derive, and then I will check out some schools. Oh, what a day of joy! Before we head over, do you mind if I ask you something off script?

Principal: Off script? I’m a figment of the mayor’s dream! I don’t know how to go off script.

Ms. Thonge: Let me put it this way. What do you really think about all this?

The principal flushes into life, and they end up talking for another hour. The mayor, still dreaming, waves his arms and shouts, “Cut! Cut!” but to no avail.

The End

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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