Constructive Criticism

April 29, 2010 By: erik Category: Musings, Politics 165 views

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For years now, I have been listening to the opposition party in Spain complain about every little problem and blame it all on the current governing party. For one, this attitude lead me to my epiphany four years ago that Conservatives Complain More, but it has also lead me to develop a new pet peeve. Complaining about the government is easy. Everyone’s angry about something. If you’re not, you’re either high or stupid. What’s really hard is suggesting a better way to do whatever it is you think the government is bungling. Recently, I’ve made a point of countering complaints with, “How would you do X better if you were in power?” The result is amazing. Most people shut up immediately or ignore the question. The ones that actually have an answer are those that have actually thought through the problem. Those are the people to listen to.

Recently on Facebook, I was discussing the US education system with a friend and teacher of mine. He was complaining that standardized test scores are an unfair measure of a teacher’s ability, and that other things like enthusiasm for learning should be taken into account. I replied thus:

How do you evaluate student Learning and Enthusiasm on a county-wide, state-wide, or nationwide level? If you don’t like standardized bubble-filling tests, then you’re going to have to put student evaluators in all the schools whose job is specifically to give their opinion, which you hope is in line with your views, about how students are doing, but at some point along the line, you have to boil things down to a number. Why? Because numbers can be legislated.

It’s been shown that driving a car while sleepy is just as dangerous if not more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. But only for one of those do we have an ability to quickly measure it and get a number. And that’s the crime that can feasibly be legislated against.

You can’t sort a list of students, teachers, schools, or districts until you can assign each a number. There will always be a discrepancy between what’s fair and what’s feasible. Even if we had perfect leaders, we’d be enraged about they how rule us.

I agree that the situation could be improved, but it’s not clear to me how. Waxing poetic about how a myriad of unquantifiable factors should be taken into account, while easy, isn’t helping to solve the problem. Perhaps you have feasible ideas about how to improve things and this is not the forum. I’m just playing the devil’s advocate to encourage that line of thought just in case you become, or get the ear of, someone with the power to change things.

Once you start thinking about the political world like this, you can very quickly evaluate the people that know what they’re talking about and those that don’t. The same goes for journalists. The good journalists are the ones that ask the “What would you do differently?” question. It’s amazing how often the response is, “Well, I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do: what the current government is doing!”

It turns out governing is hard. Think before you complain next time. I promise I will.

  • Great point.
    However I take issue with your argument about school testing. While I agree that “numbers can be legislated”, I don’t think that it follows that you HAVE to have numbers in order to legislate.
    How about we train (and pay) teachers well, and then trust them to do their job rather than justifying themselves by making them assign or calculate a number which represents the work they’ve done. Not all results can be quantified that way.

    • That’s one option. But you will have bad teachers and, without numbers, you won’t have anyway to weed them out of the system. However, it very well might be worth that risk.

      • Well in the UK even the good teachers aren’t being given the chance to do their job; they’re always complaining that they have to spend too much time on tests and paperwork, leaving less time for actual teaching.

        • Right. The UK might be even more insane about child testing than the US. I’m all for less testing and more teaching.

          • I think it is pretty clear at this point that the only thing standardized testing does, at least in the US, is establish which kids are best and worst at taking tests. I cannot imagine a single circumstance under which this information is academically meaningful.

            I also think that until we overhaul our education system with something that is more adroit and relevant, we are doomed to continue cranking out students who are perfectly trained to enter a Victorian-era workforce.

  • I just read the most awesome sentence by Dan Gilbert:

    My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.