The virtue of compliance?

By | July 12, 2014

Yet another interesting exchange on a LinkedIn board inspires this column – in this case, a question posed by Jari Metsämuuronen, a Finnish researcher looking at how different measures of educational performance are related. Toward the end of the exchange, he made the interesting observation that:

“…the external test score [was] less predictable in comparison with teachers’ marks . Teacher seems to add the known “factor X” in the marks: maybe motivational aspects, enthusiasm, development during the latest marks, and such, which are difficult to measure in one shot test. High marks seems to resonate with the butt muscles, that is, there seems to be some connection of the academic skills and/or perseverance and the teachers’ marks.” When my uncle Leighton, about whom I’ve spoken earlier, was chief penologist (i.e., expert on prisons) for the US Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s, he had great success developing alternative diversion programs for youthful Air Force offenders and returning them to duty, rather than just throwing them away as military justice was generally prone to do. However, he and others had much less success transferring this approach to the other armed services.

He once told me that one reason his programs succeeded in USAF was that at the time, the Air Force would only take kids who had a high school diploma, even in those days when the draft was omnipresent; the other services would take anyone who met the basic qualifications, regardless of educational completion. The Air Force justified this on the grounds that their work was much more technical, and required a higher level of demonstrated competence.

But in fact, one of its byproducts was that kids who had completed high school had demonstrated not only educational achievement (to some degree); they had also demonstrated compliance with the system and a willingness to invest effort toward future goals. Put another way, they were on average much better socialized into the educational system than kids who had dropped out or only achieved minimal success. So even the ones who violated various minor USAF laws and regulations were at heart Good Citizens, which they’d demonstrated by sticking with the educational system. So on average, their greater acceptance of the system made it much easier to restore them to compliance with it. Hence, program success.

I commented that Jari’s observation regarding the higher value of teachers’ opinions was pretty consistent with US research. While there’s a lot of emphasis and angst about test scores such as the SAT, teachers’ opinions are generally considerably better predictors of college performance. Jari’s “butt muscles” predictor is right on. But why? What’s actually being measured?

Teachers’ opinions mainly measure is how well the student is socialized into the school system – attendance, attention, perseverance, effort to please the teacher, etc. Students with high test scores also tend to be well socialized, although there is the occasional autodidact rebel who aces all the tests but is not a Good School Citizen. In most school systems, the good opinion of the teacher is acquired primarily by compliance with the system, not outstanding intellectual achievement (a point made vividly apparent to me at a number of points in my overall education.) And the longer a student is in a particular school system, the more important this becomes, since opinions about individual students are generally shared among teachers, even in these days of FERPA. If you are known to the teacher the first day of school as a “good student”, odds are extremely high that you’ll be exactly that at the end of the class. Success in college tends to follow on success in K-12 schooling. That is, if you know how to cooperate with the system in a compliant fashion, do the necessary work, and show up, you are likely to do well.

Why? Because schooling anywhere is primarily about fitting the rising generation to take their appropriate places within the means of production. Certainly for the last 150 years, it’s been mainly about fitting them for the assembly line, and its equivalent in white-collar work – emphasizing hierarchy, obedience, mastery of knowledge in silos, and reducing imagination and individual initiative as much as possible. And for the most part, it’s worked.

It’s certainly being questioned as to whether this industrial model of schooling is suitable for training people to be effective in the 21st century, with its needs for cooperation, innovation, and initiative. Some school systems have begun to attempt change. Jari’s Finnish schools have in many cases begun to implement new curricula more suitable to now. It’s a slow process.

In fact, we are still lumbered with one major holdover from the pre-industrial school model – i.e., summer vacation, originally instituted to let student go back to the farms when they were needed during growing season. In pre-industrial schools, kids generally were all lumped together (the “one-room school”), where they learned at their own pace and they were generally encouraged to help one another, since the single teacher couldn’t be everywhere at the same time.

The idea of a long vacation was very popular, but it didn’t seem to fit into into the new emerging industrial school model at first. But it turned out to have an advantage. It led to the creation of “grade levels”, using the vacation as a way to chunk the educational quanta. The creation of grade levels meant both better standardization of outcomes and better control of the kids, now marshaled into specific boxes – all part of the industrial model. This is where we are now.

There is certainly strong reaction now to any changes in this old industrial schooling model, which continues to meet many of the needs of the financial elites now controlling society. The whole high-stakes-testing approach was dreamed up as a way to re-emphasize the idea of strict grade levels and specific knowledge chunking. But it’s clear that this approach isn’t working for increasing numbers of kids, and it’s certainly not training effective information managers for this century.

My point is simply that predicting effectiveness in college is interesting, but has to be seen within the larger context of the purposes of schooling in society. When “compliance” turns out to be the single best predictor of successful schooling at all levels, one has to question whether compliance is what the next century really needs. Alternative tracks like online schools, the Khan Academy, MOOCs, and even “competency badgeing” may offer a way out. Watch for further discussion on this topic, including the fate of those who fall out of compliance with the system.