Obsessive Testing and Data Collection One Step Further — Genetic Testing for Children

I’ve been thinking and writing about our nation’s obsession with grit  and big data recently.  I almost couldn’t believe it when I read Jay Belsky’s article in the New York Times entitled “The Downside of Resilience” in which he advocates for genetic testing of young children to decide issues of disposition and, specifically, resilience.  What if it isn’t true, says Belsky, that positive interventions like preschool education have the power to help all children?  What if, instead, we were able to identify certain alleles of genes linked to seratonin and dopamine early on to decide which children are “at risk” for being less gritty?  Belsky suggests that, ethics aside, this would enable us to target “scarce intervention and service dollars” toward “at risk” ungritty “delicate orchid” children who are genetically predisposed to “whither if exposed to stress and deprivation.” Other children, who “are more like dandelions,” … “prove resilient to the negative effects of adversity” and “do not particularly benefit from positive experiences.”

Anthony Cody wrote an insightful commentary about Belsky’s article, pointing out that, if Belsky’s ideas are correct, then the education community’s belief that resilience and grit can be taught is, indeed, incorrect and any instruction in these areas is a waste of time.  And there is a darker side to the use of genetic testing to determine resource allocation.  The eugenics movement thrived in the years prior to WWII as societies looked to science to produce a better human race.  The Nazis wholeheartedly embraced eugenics and we’ve lived with that legacy ever since, vowing to never forget.  But it seems that we are forgetting.  And now, we want to impose ethically challenged ideas on our youngest members of society.

However, isn’t this a natural extension of our nation’s obsession with testing, measuring, and data collection? Genetic testing at birth is merely another form of data collection.  This truly, however, harkens back to Huxley’s Brave New World —  schools for Alphas, different schools for Betas, and Epsilons can mop their floors (no need to waste money trying to education them).

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The Brave New World of Big Data

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World)

Why is the U.S. so enamored with big data?  Perhaps the entire concept of big data fits nicely with a consumer society, like the one portrayed in Huxley’s 1932 novel.  Today, consumerism is the soma.  And while we rail against the government for engaging in the mining of personal data for national security, we don’t seem nearly as bothered by the mining of our data by private corporations.  As a matter of fact, we love the convenience of having our internet searches and ad pop-ups tailored to our tastes as consumers.  But we live in an age in which the data and our internet footprints never go away and we’re not quite sure what will become of it.  Think about radioactive nuclear and chemical waste.  Remember Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.  The original products associated with these locations was not bad and considered beneficial to the region, bringing jobs and energy to the population.  However, what was left behind was far more toxic.

What happens to all the big data after its original use has been thoroughly exploited?  It has an incredibly long shelf life and it highly and easily marketed to another entity who can re-purpose the data for further exploitation.  While education data machine makers offer benevolent reasons for gathering, storing, and reporting all the available data on children from preschool through their college years, this data will never go away.  What other entities will find this data useful and worth whatever price or manipulation to get it.

Will data become destiny for children?  Will it become convenient to sort people according to the data we are accumulating?  Again, we can look back to Huxley’s proposition that social stability will ensue from the acknowledgement that people can become very comfortable with their respective roles.   One of the characters in A Brave New World explains why it is better to be a Beta:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Is grit something we can teach children — or — is it an immutable quality?  Will we conclude after all the grit studies that the quality of a child’s grit level is genetically predetermined and will we decide not to waste too many resources on gritless children?  Will we decide to have them wear a different color or type of Gates’ inspired data collecting biosensor bracelet to continually monitor their attentiveness?  And when they are finished with school, that data can be provided to prospective employers.  They can decide whether or not they can afford to hire a person who, during the 2nd and 3rd grade, was rated as inattentive, unable to focus on academic tasks, and just plain not very gritty.  If they were less gritty for those two years, what’s to say that pattern won’t return at some point?  Best to employ a person with no interruptions in their attentiveness level.

And let’s always remember that poor children are the ones being targeted for explicit grit instruction.  Grit is the magic bullet that will enable them to succeed in spite of the odds.  In 2008, former politician and lingering conservative talking head, Newt Gingrich asserted that “poor kids have no work ethic — unless it comes to doing something illegal. … they have no habits of working and nobody around them who works …”  What they need is the opportunity, even as young as nine years old, to be given paying jobs such as mopping hallways in school.  In a brave new world, Epsilons can mop the floors.  Maybe if they can earn a few shekels, they can develop at least a little grit. But will they ever become Betas or Alphas?  You tell me.

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The Problem with RTTT’s Big Data Banks: Garbage In Garbage Out — The Data can Simply be Wrong!

One of the RTTT mandates for states is the implementation of massive data storage and reporting systems for students that extends from preschool through their college years.  Education reformers’ devotion to the infallibility of data is misguided and troubling.  I remember a quote from my days in a college computer programming class — a long time ago now: “Garbage In Garbage Out” (GIGO).  The concept was quite simple and highly understandable and still applies today.  It is still used to explain the problems inherent when humans make decisions based on faulty or incomplete data.

Valerie Strauss shared an article by New York principal Carol Burris that illustrates just how problematic it is when big brother Orwellian data systems are used to drive education reform decisions.  The New York State Education Department released a report recently that demonstrates the problems associated with GIGO errors.  While the NYSED soon realized their mistake and notified school districts that the data was incorrect, one must wonder how many GIGO – type errors actually occur within data systems and the egregious problems that result when policy makers cite faulty or incomplete data as the rationale for policy decisions.  How many times does the data go unchallenged and, thus, uncorrected?

This most recent example of GIGO error ridden data is NYSED’s report about the number of students leaving high school to attend — and remain — in college.  Carol Burris questioned the low percentage of students graduating from her high school in 2012 that were currently successfully enrolled in college as reported by the NYSED.  She quickly realized that a number of her most successful students were left off the list entirely.  And it was chilling to see the extent of the data reported for students who were on the list: whether or not they received free or reduced lunch, their special education status, their race, the name of the college or university they attended, and sometimes their major.  Why were some students left off the list?  Because, in some cases, they did not receive financial aid or perhaps because they did not require remediation once in college.  And some colleges refuse to share data.

What was the potential fall-out of this GIGO error by the NYSED?  Once again, public schools would be blamed for not adequately preparing students to be college and career ready and, thus, a ready argument for the Common Core State Standards would be on hand.  GIGO errors like this have too often been left to stand and have been used to perpetuate the zeitgeist that all public schools are failing.

As a matter of fact, the data used by the Reagan commission that created A Nation at Risk can be cited as the GIGO error that culminated in the freight train of systemic education reform we’ve been living with since the early 1980s.  The National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) relied heavily on SAT data to draw their conclusion in 1983 that the education system in America was an abject failure. While citing statistical data that SAT scores had been dropping since the early 1960s, they ignored the very real data about the societal changes that led to these drops.  Was that data available to the NCEE?  Absolutely.  In 1977 the College Board, the organization that oversees the SATs,  published their own report explaining that the drop in scores was largely due to changes in the number and type of students who were taking the exam in preparation for attending college.  Far from being a negative phenomenon, this was a positive reflection on a nation that had for too many years excluded students of color, students from low income homes, and women from realizing the dream of higher education.  With larger numbers of diverse students taking the SAT, it was only logical that, at least for a period of time, scores would drop.  The SAT scores could not, therefore, be used as an adequate measure of school or instructional quality.  The NCEE’s lack of acknowledgement of the College Board’s findings about SAT score declines is a clear example of a GIGO data error — and one that had a disastrous impact on education policies in the U.S.  Their use of incomplete data to draw decisions and make policy recommendations in A Nation at Risk has brought public schools in the U.S. to the brink of destruction as their conclusions have gone largely unchallenged by the federal government, policy makers, and corporate education reformers who persist in declaring that our education system is a complete failure.  Even when William Turnbull, Distinguished Scholar in Residence for the Educational Testing Service, elaborated on the College Board’s findings and published his report Student Change, Program Change: Why the SAT Scores Kept Falling in 1985, his report was largely ignored by policy makers.

Federal education reformers had an opportunity again in the early 90’s to clarify their position on education quality in the U.S.  The Sandia Laboratories was commissioned to write a report about the status of the American education system by Secretary of Energy James Watkins.  Far from echoing the findings of the NCEE and A Nation at Risk, Sandia researchers found that there was no need for systemic education reform across the country, citing some of the same data the College Board and Turnbull relied on for their respectives reports.  However, by the early 1990s, the federal Department of Education was well entrenched with systemic education reformers hell-bent on radically reforming the education system and the Sandia Report could simply not be tolerated.  The report was buried.  One can only wonder the outcome for education policy in our country if the DOE had officially published the report with the same accolades as A Nation at Risk.  What a triumph of patriotism!!  The headlines could have read “Guess what, America?  New Report Says Your Education System is a Source of Pride!”

That was not to be, however.  It was best to squelch research that contradicted education reformers in their quest to free-marketize public schools and radically reform the education system.  What was needed was a steady stream of reports that labeled public schools as a total failure.  Stalwart critic of education reformers, Gerald Bracey began publishing annual reports in 1991 on the condition of public education.  His reports were an annual event for 18 years.  Bracey revealed to America the misuse of data by policy makers intent on destroying our education system and he wrote about the Sandia Report debacle.  He passed away in 2009 and his voice is missed.  He angered a lot of education reformers with his truth speaking, but he continued to speak out on behalf of supporters of public education, teachers, parents, and children.  His many books are a good place to start when questioning the GIGO data continually trotted out by education reformers.  And you may want to go to Susan Ohanian’s website to learn more about Gerald Bracey’s life and work.  Her index of tributes to Dr. Bracey is a touching reminder of his legacy.