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Fuzzy Standards by ferdi serim

Date: Thu, 05 Oct 2000 01:27:46 -0400
Subject: Fuzzy Standards
From: "Ferdi Serim" <>

Quite apart from one's personal political preferences, a remarkable outcome of the first presidential debate was the manner in which the term "fuzzy math" was embraced by large segments of the public. Taking on a life of its own, the term resonated even with those who didn't witness the debate. Faced with the enormous magnitude of numbers required to represent policy decisions shaping the fate of both retiring baby boomers and the young workers in the next decade who must fund promises made generations ago, the trading of statistics by both candidates revealed a public aversion reaction to numeracy not seen since Ross Perot pointed to pie-charts to explain various aspects of his platform. Whether or not any particular candidate's numbers were accurate, "fuzzy math" can be seen as a numerically based discussion that causes the participants' thinking to become fuzzy itself. After the onset of such a condition, it is far more comforting to retreat to images, soundbites and anecdotes to sway the opinions upon which electoral judgement lives and dies.

Perhaps the fuzziest thinking all night came with the genuflecting at the altar of high stakes standardized testing. Each candidate worked to outdo the other in stressing the importance of mandatory tests. Unlike prunes (is one enough? are two too many?) the effectiveness is not measured in terms of results, but in the regularity with which testing is done. Whether or not annual testing is sufficient to shape instruction to the needs of individual learners, it is a concept easily enough understood by voters to safely avoid the vertigo of analysis, and cheap enough to serve as a companion to other forms of habitual election year rhetoric. We don't need to feed the calf, we just need to weigh the calf more regularly. If the calf fails to gain weight, stop feeding it because it will never make it to market anyway. Simply specify standards for calf weight at various stages, take the measurements and move on.

Of course, each state needs its own standards for education. To suggest otherwise would raise the unholy specter of a national curriculum. Contemporary consensus seems to support the idea that our reluctance to impose a national set of goals for what children should know and be able to do in any/every state in our nation is what sets us apart from the other industrialized nations of the world who are not doing quite so well as we are economically. Aren't we lucky not to have been seduced by such an impulse? After looking at our national collection of state standards, the only question I have is why we don't yet have 50 time zones.

In fact, why must we adhere to antiquated customs in sports? Why should the distance between home plate and first base be 90 feet in every state? Wouldn't the players in Denver rather submit their opponents to the challenge of an extra 10 feet of distance to cover in the thinner mile high air? Why must the ball be the same weight and size, regardless of humidity, altitude or temperature? Certainly there are important reasons to shape standards to locality?

Sports teams would never entertain such absurdity. Not only do their playing schedules take them across state lines, but the employment patterns of professional athletes dictate that all play by the same rules, using the same standards. However, students get traded from school to school, district to district, state to state at a far higher rate than athletes. Yet it is perfectly possible for a student to miss important segments of their foundational knowledge simply through relocation, because one state may teach US History when another is teaching World History, and what we're really measuring is seat time, not ownership of knowledge.

We all learned a lesson about standards during the Olympics, when during the women's gymnastic events, one side of the vault was set 5 centimeters too low (in the US it was reported as 2 inches, which was to avoid the"fuzzy math" using the metric system would have inflicted on viewers, but that's another topic). If you don't believe me, ask Elise Ray or Svetlana Khorkina. The standards called for a certain setting, but the assessment of whether the standards had been met didn't call for periodic assessment based on observation. Oops!

We treat standards like the finish line instead of the foundation for learning. If the test scores are high enough, we can worry about something else. If the test scores are too low, let's punish the failing schools. One can expect such fuzzy reasoning from people who have so little grasp of what is fundamentally flawed in their equation: they keep time constant and learning a variable, instead of the other way around. Just like the Olympics, where finishing the race is an honor of national, if not global proportions, we need to be sure that each student reaches the goal, regardless of whether they set records for shortest elapsed time or not. Because with respect to learning, we're not all running on the same course. Ask anyone who's actually worked with children about whether the conditions in which they live their lives influences their performance, or whether it takes more or less resources to nurture kids with several strikes against them, or whether such extraordinary investment actually pays off in terms of changed lives. Such thoughtful exchanges require more of both parties in the conversation than our current system of national discussion can tolerate before invoking the "fuzz word".

Standards have a vital role in the assessment of performance. However, the measures we are using won't provide us with the picture we need. In olden times, we drilled holes in the skull of an afflicted person to let the evil spirits out. With x-rays, and now SPECT scans and other emerging technologies, we can actually see in real time what is going on in the brain. We just don't take a snapshot, we take time series images, to see changes and the results of the interventions we use to help the patient. Would it were so in education!

The situation remains gridlocked unless and until we as a society come to terms with the necessity of agreeing on a finite set of goals for learners. While there is already too much to know, and more information being generated every day, common sense dictates that a foundation which prepares everyone to learn how to learn, and how to take ownership of what's been learned through the ability to apply one's learning to the problems at hand - that would be a good place to start. Not everyone must become adept at every skill, or conversant with every domain of knowledge. However, fundamental literacy, which embraces the fullest and most contemporary sense of that word, ought to take precedence over the fleeting ability to answer de-contextualized questions, much as one would encounter in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". The education far too many of our students receive more closely resembles coaching for a game show than preparation for real life.

If we need more evidence, let's return to the original theme. As issues and decisions become more complex, do we need to grow the individual capacities of our society's members so that they don't shrink back from critical thinking? Lao T'se said 3,000 years ago in the Tao Te-Ching "if you want to rule the people, don't let them travel and keep them ignorant." While it may not serve the tranquility of political contests to raise the bar, we need to elevate our general capacity to focus on, learn about, understand, analyze and discuss the challenges we face. Either we decide, or decisions will be made for us, whether in Washington DC or elsewhere. It's time for a massive user upgrade. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

© Ferdi Serim 2000

Ferdi Serim phone/fax: 505 466-1901; cell: 505 577-1580

Online Internet Institute, Director
Santa Fe, NM 87505

co-author: NetLearning: Why Teachers Use the Internet

"We are more than the sum of our knowledge,
we are the products of our imagination." - Ferdi