Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Superstition

It seems to me that we in America suffer too often from the belief that to systematize is necessarily to rationalize. I have seen this up close in the worlds of children's sports and in education. During the 50 years or so over which my memory of the matters extends, they have been relentlessly systematized, but it would be flattery or deceit to say that they have been rationalized.

Sunday's New York Times reviews The Most Expensive Game in Town, a book by Mark Hyman on youth sports. It documents the astonishing amounts of time parents and children spend on these teams, and the also astonishing amounts of money involved. Most of the children, of course, will reach their limits by the end of high school; a few will go on to play sports at the college level or in the minor leagues; and a tiny fraction will be good enough to make a living playing a sport for a few years. And of course this was the way things worked when even Little League was hardly known, and most kids didn't play on teams outside of school.

US News and World Report will be happy to tell you what are the best high schools in the country, based on a "challenge index", a ratio of AP exams taken to the size of the graduating class. It is very systematic, breaking ties out to I think the fourth decimal place. The same publication will tell you whether Notre Dame is this year better than Brown, or Carnegie Mellon than Case Western Reserve, and will back it up with statistics. The challenge index can be gamed, by pushing more students into the AP courses; some thoughtful and articulate teachers have argued that this does not help the students or the school. The statistics that go into the college rankings can be gamed--you can become more selective by encouraging more students to apply.

And now the states are dealing with the consequences of "No Child Left Behind". The scores aren't what they should be, despite the schools closed and the teachers counseled or pushed out. Systematically,  perhaps rationally, states are redefining the threshold for proficiency, lowering the score that must be achieved.

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