Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Educationists Could (Really) Learn from the NFL Combine

Four events from Curmie’s (much) younger days.

1. I was maybe ten. Someone at my school had bought a contraption (an Ur-version of a modern computer) that measured not only how accurately but how quickly students responded to a series of math and vocabulary questions. I was accused of cheating (how and why would I do that on a test that didn’t count for anything?) because I answered all the questions correctly in a time that would have been considered excellent for a college student.

2. I was in college. A friend was doing a psychology experiment on the effects of caffeine in various quantities. She’d read off a number and my job was to add 17 to it. She charted response time and accuracy. Then she bought me a coke, I drank it, and we repeated the process. I don’t remember how many times we did this. I do remember that every time, I answered correctly to every question and did so in a time a quantum step or two faster than any of the math majors she tested.

3. This was also in college, but in a different venue. Another friend would read off a three digit number, then start carrying on a conversation. After an appointed length of time—30 seconds, a minute, 3 minutes—she’d ask me to repeat the numbers. I did, accurately, every time. Then we repeated the test with letters: same result.

4. Because I did my MA in England, I was actually already teaching college when I took the GRE. My preparation for the math section was minimal: I did a little brushing up on algebra, but I didn’t take any test prep courses, and I hadn’t been in a math classroom in about five years. The night before the exam, I was at a party until about 4:00 before the 8:00 a.m. test, and yes, I’d had a couple of beers. With this unimpeachable regimen, I proceeded to get a perfect score on the math section of the GRE.

I don’t know why these related memories clicked into my mind yesterday morning, but I suspect it might have something to do with the ongoing debate about standardized testing: in particular, the comments of one John Barker. I’ve made it pretty clear over the years what I think of the increasing emphasis on standardized testing and the accompanying teach-to-the-test mentality that has infested public education in recent years. That is, whereas I grant the “objectivity” of these exams, I am skeptical of their accuracy, their relevance, their potential either to measure outcomes or to predict future performance, and even—in light of the cheating scandals we know about (and the certainty that there are those we don’t)—the integrity of the process. I’ve made these points repeatedly on this blog and its predecessor over a period of nearly eight years: here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example.

Mr. Barker, the chief accountability officer for the Chicago Public Schools, thinks otherwise. Well, duh. His job is to legitimize his own salary—well over twice mine, by the way—and to pretend that his ultimate boss, the despicable Rahm Emanuel, is something other than the venal corporate meat puppet he truly is.

The Barker quotation that’s attracting all the attention from the teaching profession is this: “My philosophy has always been that if it's a good test, teach to it.” This inanity encapsulates precisely the sort of folksy pseudo-sensibility that characterizes the accountability crowd. The implicit underpinnings of this argumentation are two-fold: that every student, everywhere, ought to be learning not merely the same basic concepts, but precisely the same thing, and a smug, unspoken assertion that the “good test” in question not only exists, but is employed universally. Needless to say, these self-serving rationales have something of the aroma of merde de taureau about them.

But I want to concentrate attention on another of Barker’s pronouncements: “I was watching the NFL combine last night, and these guys are running 40-yard dashes. If they haven't trained for that particular test, they're going to have a problem. But as you run the race in that particular test, you get better and you know more about yourself.” Seriously, he said that. Look, Gentle Reader, you and I both know that the comparison is inane. I’m pretty sure we can take as given that the sprints in question aren’t designed to increase participants’ self-knowledge.

And here’s where we return to the stories of Curmie’s youth. What, after all, was determined by the fact that I had scores that were (literally) off the charts on a couple of tests? That I was some sort of genius? Hardly. I was a bright enough guy, but all that was really determined was that I can do easy math really quickly and that I employed some basic mnemonic devices in memorizing number or letter sequences, even when I wasn’t intending to do so. I recall, for example, that one of the letter sequences happened to be a friend’s initials, a fact I noticed immediately and couldn’t “unremember” even though I’d been instructed not to try too hard to get the answers correct. And, of course, as an actor, I was used to finding (or creating) connections between seemingly unique data to aid in the process of (wait for it) memorization.

How’d I do so well on the GRE? Well, for one thing, they didn’t ask anything hard: no analytical geometry or calculus or probability, much less stuff I’d never seen before. Nobody does easy math better than I do. Lots of people do hard math better than I do. If you want somebody to add 17 to a two-digit number in a hurry, I’m your man. But when you start talking about natural logarithms and second derivatives, I’d really suggest that you look elsewhere. What these tests, any or all of them, didn’t show was whether I could memorize long strings of letters and numbers, or to do higher order math: addition (or even basic algebra) is a long way from calculus or set theory.

Thus, I’d like to look at the parallelism between that scouting combine and a standardized test in a slightly different light: namely, what is done with the data collected. Those NFL scouts at the combine understand that a time in the 40 provides a single piece of objective but only marginally relevant data. No offensive tackle is going to be asked to run 40 yards on a single play, and certainly not in a straight line. Even receivers are going to be sent in motion or not, to be positioned as a wide-out or in the slot, etc. Quickness means more than speed, and pure speed without strength (also objectively measurable) and savvy (not measurable) doesn’t amount to much.

That is, whereas a scout or a general manager might be interested that this player is two-tenths of a second faster than that one for forty yards, those times will be factored in with dozens of other bits of data—some objective, some subjective—in determining whom the team should draft. Crucially, the scouts analyze everything they can about a prospect: his strength and speed, sure, but also his work ethic, sense of teamwork, flexibility (in both the physical and attitudinal senses of the term), knowledge of the techniques of the game, etc. No player will be drafted or not based solely on his speed in the 40, and no one is going to be stupid enough to judge his college coach on the basis of that number.

Moreover, whereas it may be true that a particular prospect does a little better on the test because he’s “trained for it,” and someone else is “going to have a problem,” that very fact diminishes if not completely undermines the legitimacy of the result: since no one is going to be asked to run, unobstructed, for 40 yards (or to bench press stationary weights, or whatever) in a football game, the purpose of the test is to approximate the skill set actually required by a top-notch player in a manner that is objective and at least reasonably accurate. That a player “trains” for the test so that, hypothetically, he gets a faster start from a body position he’ll never use in a game situation only distorts the test results, rendering them even less valuable than they’d already been. The analogy to test preparation services—which, assuming they work at all, of course, benefit those who can afford them at the relative expense of those who can’t—seems obvious.

Yes, it tells you something about a student that s/he does really well on some exam, the same way it tells you something about a football player if he gets a great time in the 40. The difference is that NFL teams are smart enough to know that they’re seeing only a snapshot, whereas the educationists—especially those, like the good Mr. Barker, who have apparently never spent a day as an actual educator—place increasingly higher emphasis on those isolated moments in time. Would I rather have a football player who runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds than one who runs a 4.7? All other things being equal, sure. But all other things are never equal. Never. Allow me to repeat: never.

Not only are strength, explosiveness, balance, and a host of other variables just as important as speed, but there’s one more factor that in fact occupies the very center of the discussion, although Barker may be too dim-witted to understand. A 4.7 is a great time for a lineman; a 4.5 is average (by NFL standards) for a wide receiver. That doesn’t mean the wide receiver is “better,” only different. Don’t make a quarterback try to decide between the guy who’ll make great catches and the guy who’ll keep him vertical to throw the pass at all.

Similarly, whereas standardized testing can provide useful insight into a student’s preparation, such exams not only don’t measure everything (try creating an objective test for poetry, or intellectual curiosity, or kindness), they don’t really even measure what they measure. Looked at intelligently, which is to say skeptically, they provide some useful information. But that requires both work ethic and wisdom, two attributes conspicuously absent in most educationists. Student populations differ—class to class, neighborhood to neighborhood, year to year. The data I, as a university professor, compile for our bullshit assessment tells us far more about the caliber of students we’re attracting than about either my skills or the course structure.

A grain of salt would come in handy, in other words. Otherwise, we end up with wicked fast players who can’t… you know… catch or block or tackle. And that’s no way to win.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

This Buckeye Is No Dope

Over at Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall had a piece a few weeks ago (sorry to be so slow… I got a story up on the Facebook page even before Jack’s article, but it’s somewhere on the far side of understatement to say that I’m way behind on my writing) about an elderly couple pulled over by the cops for having a decal of a marijuana leaf on their car. Trouble was, it wasn’t: it was a logo for the Ohio State Buckeyes… you know, that university in Columbus, Ohio that usually fields pretty good sports teams?

Jack is right to chide the journalists involved for not pointing out the obvious 1st amendment issue involved, namely that it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a marijuana leaf, but I think there’s something else at play here. Fact is, although, like Joe Blundo of the Columbus Dispatch (but unlike a lot of the more national coverage: USA Today, for example), I’d have mentioned the obvious unconstitutionality of the stop, I’d have probably led my story with the colossal stupidity of the officers involved.

Maybe it’s because I’m a college sports fan, with a beloved niece at Ohio State. Maybe it’s because I’m of a certain age, and those of my generation are pretty likely to know what does and does not resemble a marijuana leaf. Maybe it’s because I’m the son of a PhD in botany. Maybe it’s that for the stop to have made any sense (completely apart from its illegality), we’d have to believe that drug kingpins are interested in advertising their business: “Hey, over here. I’m running a dope ring!” In other words, that even if that logo were a marijuana leaf, and even if the 1st amendment didn’t exist, the cops would still be idiots.

But I’m troubled by the implications here. We assume that cops—not all of them, of course, but more than a few proverbial “bad apples”—are stupid. There was even that court case a few years back in which New London, CT successfully defended their right to deny employment opportunities to those who score too high on IQ tests. And the string of idiocies perpetrated by the police, especially with respect to pot, extends so far, both quantitatively and qualitatively, into the realm of the wackadoodle that a gaggle of uniformed mouth-breathers in Tennessee just adds to the collection.

One of the commenters on Jack’s essay points us to a Radley Balko article which enumerates some (frighteningly enough, the list, long and horrifying as it is, isn’t comprehensive) of the “oops” moments in the War on Drugs:
The list of things for which police have waged often violent drug raids after mistaking them for marijuana is a long one. It includes (but likely is not limited to) elderberry bushes, tomato plants (several times), yellow bell pepper plants, umbrella leaf, ragweed, okra, hibiscus, kenaf plants, daisies, the scent of moss, the scent of a skunk, and a plastic plant purchased for a pet lizard's planetarium.

By my count, there have also been at least three incidents in which drug cops have mistakenly raided the home of a current or former mayor.
But there remains something strangely comforting about stories about stupid police officers. They allow us to pass the blame to the incompetent few.

Unfortunately, this strategy not only allows but indeed encourages us to ignore the more systemic problems. Obviously, there are many wonderful policemen and –women who really do believe in the whole “serve and protect” mantra. Too many cops, though, are as arrogant as they are stupid: they went into the business because they couldn’t get a better job, and because they get to swagger around town wearing sidearms and a smirk that aptly conveys their bestial pseudo-superiority.

I’m not talking about the one who stops you for speeding and exaggerates the offense. I’m talking about the one who treats you like a criminal for reporting possible evidence of a crime, who ignores obvious violations when committed by like-minded folks but manufactures reasons to harass those who disagree (whose bumper sticker supports the wrong candidate, for example), whose every action seems a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to compensate for an infinitesimal sex organ.

These officers—a noxious admixture of hubris and boneheadedness—have always been with us. The difference is that they, and more specifically their tactics, are increasingly accepted. At the macro level, we get the greatest single assault on civil liberties since the HUAC Committee: the PATRIOT Act, born of over-reaction and continued by craven capitulation.

At the micro level, the absurdities would be laughable except for the real damage to real people. Pick your story: New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, which de facto defines suspicious activity as being young, male, and either black or Hispanic; the myriad attacks by police on #Occupy protesters; the jackass transportation cop who killed a suspect who was already immobilized; the idiot with a badge who arrested MC Hammer for the apparent crime of sitting in a car while black.

What all this translates into is that cops increasingly think they’re both invincible and unaccountable. Trouble is, this sentiment is slowly but inexorably becoming accurate. And here is where I must diverge from Jack’s analysis. While placing more blame elsewhere, he also chastises the victim of the harassment, Bonnie Jonas-Boggioni, for not being more confrontational with the idiot cops, for not saying,
“It is none of your business, Officer! The First Amendment gives us the right to display any picture, design or message on our car that we choose, and if you want a civil rights law suit that will bring even more embarrassment to your department and community than the fact that you can’t tell an Ohio State decal from a pot-head manifesto, I suggest you keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, back off and let us go on our way.”
I’d offer a couple defenses of their conduct, however. First, this is a cop incompetent enough to mistake a buckeye for a marijuana leaf and to think that someone displaying even the latter wouldn’t have the absolute legal right to do so. Such a sorry excuse for an American, let alone a police officer, is likely to be precisely the kind of armed, arrogant and testosto-moronic jerk who would think himself within his rights to beat up a couple of senior citizens who had the audacity to question his absolute authority to be an assclown.

Secondly, the level of brain-melting inanity represented by the traffic stop is indeed flabbergasting, even for a Tennessee cop. The most difficult questions I have to answer as a college professor aren’t the hard ones, the ones which require nuance or which push the boundaries of my own expertise (“I don’t know” is a much under-utilized response in my profession). No, the hard questions are the stupid ones—“Wasn’t Hitler a Communist?” “There were black people in America in the 1770s?” “How long did the Thirty Years War last?” Sometimes these questions are asked by people who don’t belong in college. More often, they’re posed by bright enough students who either aren’t thinking or who took high school history from the assistant football coach. But it takes a second to recover from the idiocy of the question, and I confess to sometimes being flustered by the ludicrousness of it all. Sometimes I consider Kafka a cockeyed optimist.

Thirdly, Ms. Jonas-Boggioni did indeed defy the “advice” of Officer Idiot to remove the decal “permanently”: “I didn’t take it off…. This little old lady is no drug dealer.” The threshold for civil disobedience seems to have lowered a little since I was a lad, and defiance comes a little cheaper. But when you’re when you’re bellied up to the cantina bar, sometimes it’s wiser to leave the droid outside and just marvel at the view.