Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wilderness, school reform, and choice of metric

Another bit from A Sand County Almanac. Leopold offers an illustration of how (non-obviously) poor initial decisions about evaluative standards can lock us into a self-destructive course.

Wilderness is the home of big game. Thus one group that has long advocated for wilderness conservation is hunters. In fact, hunters and anglers were pushing for a quasi-environmentalist agenda long before there was any movement recognizable as modern environmentalism. It's because of hunters that the departments charged with tending the natural environment are Departments of Fish and Game, not Departments of Biodiversity, or some such. But the focus on quantity of big game-- on hunter satisfaction-- as the metric by which to judge the quality of wilderness areas proved self-destructive:
One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of big-game management. The big-game herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.
This is a good cautionary tale for the school reform movement. Choice of evaluative metric has profound effects on the thing being evaluated. It's very important, then, that your choice of metric do a good job of tracking what's actually valuable-- because a mistake in identifying what's valuable might not only miss the point, but actively contribute to the destruction of what's really valuable.

I don't think many in the reform movement think that standardized tests are testing what's actually valuable about childhood education. They think, instead, that they've settled on a reasonably good proxy for educational value that has the virtue of being objective, analyzable with familiar statistical methods, and easily comparable between schools and years. This approach is almost certainly doomed. Leopold's wilderness example shows us that we should be humble and careful in settling on metrics, even when we sincerely believe the metric tracks what's valuable. (We often make mistakes in judging what's valuable.) The school reform movement has chosen a metric it knows doesn't track what's valuable. The right attitude toward a future in which Rhee/Duncan/Obama-style standards-and-accountability reforms continue to take hold is dread.

(Leopold quote from "Wilderness." Page 191 in my edition of A Sand County Almanac.)

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