Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quantifying the unquantifiable?

     In The New York Times yesterday, Sharon Otterman reported on the dismal record of the system of teacher rankings used by the New York City school system. Over at UCLA Prof. Mark Kleiman's The Reality-Based Community, University of California, Berkeley Prof. Michael O'Hare expands on Otterman's article by offering a broader and more pointed critique of current teacher-ranking efforts.

     Legal skills build on those developed earlier in life: learning the alphabet in kindergarten or pre-school lays the foundation for reading and writing, skills obviously essential for succeeding in law school and law practice. And, of course, those skills develop because someone took time to teach them. The Otterman article and O'Hare blog post serve as useful reminders that if we fail to assess accurately -- both objectively and subjectively -- the work of those who teach skills (by, e.g., seeing causation where only correlation exists), we risk in significant ways depriving students of their best opportunity to become not just good students or skilled employees, but well-formed human beings, not to mention turning teachers and students into mere units of measurable production. Without adequate checks on the zeal to convert an array of human capabilities into a number or two, we might emerge in a future not too distant in sensibility from that conceived by Douglas Adams, where a massive computer (Deep Thought) runs a calculation over a period of 7.5 million years and reveals that the single-number "Ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is . . . 42."



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