Education: Signal vs Noise

The 21st century has a whale of a lot of noise in it. The kids have coined a phrase to help us sift through all of it: signal vs. noise. Signal matters. Noise doesn’t. But a lot of what we do in education masquerades as signal, when all it is is noise.

First, we use “seat time” to signal to kids that education is important. That’s why the 180-day school year requirement, among other things. There is no strong correlation between seat time and test scores, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a signal that we care about education. Kids, however, pick that up as a signal that ADULTS care about education, but since adults (kids believe) are mostly morons, and often punitive and dangerously unstable morons, that’s not a positive message. In other words, this one is noise.

Second, we use pieces of paper to signal competence. Starting with the high school diploma, and moving onward from there, we signal to each other that graduating students are worthy of employment (and that they are valuable in other ways, as human beings). The high school diploma does not correlate with success at university. University education does not correlate with job security, and its correlation with income is tautological (employers believe a degree means something, so by definition a degree DOES mean something, so this reinforces the idea that a degree means something). The signal is being sent, and received, yet the results do not support the contention of the signal. Again, mostly noise.

Third, we use per-pupil expenditures to signal caring about kids. There is no rational human being that will contend that Utah parents care 55% as much about their kids as Virginia parents do (having lived for over 20 years in each state, I’d argue the reverse quite vociferously), but the Virginia per-pupil is $11,700, and the Utah per-pupil is $6500. It’s a signal. The signal is entirely white noise–again, there is no correlation between money spent per pupil and test scores, let alone long-term success.

But as a teacher myself, I think it’s exceptionally difficult to measure success in education. I’m not at all sure what the term even means. Test scores? Okay, but do test scores correlate to “life success”? No. They do not. Top SAT scorers are every bit as likely to be unemployed, bankrupt, divorced, and jailed, as other people. So I can teach to the test–indeed, I am all but threatened into doing so–but does that do my students a disservice? I believe it does.

I don’t signal to my students that I care about them, I actually care about them. As a result, many of them do very well on the traditional measures of academic success. But because my school is a magnet for refugees from mainline public schools, I also have a huge number of kids that will never perform well on such measures. Still, I believe they are learning and I believe they’re learning because of what and how we teach them.

I see no good way to measure that. I see even less how I could prove it to an administrator. And I suppose it is therefore possible that I am completely bamboozled, and that none of this learning is, in fact, happening. But if it isn’t, I guarantee you it wouldn’t happen anywhere else any better. In fact, I think that may be true anyway–kids learn what they learn.

Finding the appropriate fit for a kid, where he will learn the most, is not going to reduce down to 50 pages of core standards, or some kind of bar graph. It’s as individual as the kid is. But we signal, because 1) that lets people keep their jobs and 2) because we genuinely don’t know what else to do. We’re spending–literally–nearly a trillion dollars on education annually in the US, the vast majority of it public money. We have to have SOME way of being accountable for all that.

Which is why, in my opinion, government as an education monopoly is a bad idea. Government is a chainsaw, a huge, powerful tool that can take out a tree–or your leg–in a minute or less. But you don’t want to use it to remove a blood clot. Most education is logging, pure and simple. Carpet-bomb the basics. A good number of kids, though, aren’t going to do well with that, on both sides of the spectrum.

Exceptional kids can and should have access to exceptional opportunity (NOTE: this does not mean “rich kids”), and kids that won’t do well in the assembly-line education system need a way to get out and get what they need elsewhere. We currently make that quite hard, in most places, and I think our education system would benefit from making it easier. I also think we could get the same or very similar results with half the expenditures we now have, as they do in many charter schools and virtually all parochial schools (Utah private schools are, for many reasons, bad examples).

Technology won’t fix it, or even make a significant dent in the problem. A computer in every class is no solution (again, no correlation between technology and learning, at least not in schools). The problems are systemic. The system was designed to provide workers for defined problem sets–things you can learn to do from a checklist–and we still need a fair number of those workers, though fewer and fewer of them.

The 21st century, by contrast, will need ill-defined-problem solvers, people who can recognize problems that do not yet exist, or that exist but are intractable, i.e. eliminating malaria. Our education system does not provide much hope that those thinkers will come about. I think they will, but mostly from the segment of the population that has opted out of school.

And you know, maybe it wouldn’t matter, or matter very much. Maybe kids are going to learn what they’re going to learn, and it’s irrelevant what we teach them. I think that’s possible, and exceptionally hard to prove. Our society is, at any rate, built on the idea that we’re going to pen kids up for hours a day so their parents don’t have to worry about them, so this isn’t changing.

Still. I was in a meeting this weekend, and the facilitator asked how often we were holding meetings in our local units. The acceptable answers were anywhere from “once a month” to “once a week”. We all fell into the acceptable bracket. “But,” the leader said, “the key here is not frequency, but effectiveness. If your meetings are ineffective, and you’re meeting once a week, you should probably drop to once a month.” Until we have some solid evidence that spending $700 billion on education every year produces results we couldn’t get by spending half that, I wonder if we shouldn’t spend half of it.

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