August 15, 2013

Some observations about the apparently eternal appeal of phrenology.

Let it never be said that the mysteries of the human mind do not merit close scientific investigation.
    So let's take a moment to consider the bold discoveries of phrenologists in the 19th century. Once they noticed that human heads are all shaped differently, and are often sprinkled with unique individual bumps, they concluded that with a one-foot ruler they had all they needed to decipher the variations in human personality and intelligence.
    After all, these head bumps could be carefully measured and calculated. And because the human mind was apparently located in some proximity to the human head, that made their conclusions automatically scientific and true, right?
    Today, of course, phrenologists are a scientific joke from the distant past and we wonder how anyone could have ever believed their head bump conclusions in the first place. No one today could ever be so stupid to believe something so moronic masked as science.
    Or could they?

    Today we have a bright new generation of phrenologists, now represented to us as statistical mathematicians, who are convinced that they can turn around the test scores of children in school to accurately measure, not anything about the children themselves, but the quality of teachers. They call this teacher measuring method "value-added." The only problem is, their analysis never includes any adjustments for the umpteen – which is a real and very large whole number – qualitative factors which are confronted every day by real teachers in real classrooms, and which make their pseudo-statistical conclusions completely meaningless. Complexity, both social and mathematical, is something they just don't like to think about.
    And yet, they will not give it up. It's like they invented celery yogurt or something, and then have to keep trying to explain why everyone should love it.
    How did this all happen in the first place?
    As their circulation continues to shrink, newspapers are looking desperately for new "issues" to keep their existence relevant, and they have lead the frenzy for test-based teacher evaluations. But even if this method makes no sense, "improving our schools" has always been a popular campaign mantra for politicians as well so why just not go along? And as for administrators, of course, well – you just never want to contradict politicians.
    So how will this all end?
    Don't worry. The end is finally near.
    Our complete national fixation on "fact-focused" student test scores will soon begin to wash away as we now move away from fact memorization as our total educational focus and return to teaching children, along with essential reading, writing and math skills, a greater ability to think. To analyze. To compare. To evaluate. To infer. To conclude. To hypothesize. To predict. To imagine. To invent and discover.
    It's called the Common Core, or the return to reason.
    And it's going to happen now.

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