Addendum (and a catchy tune): Ethics, Social Science Research and VAMing Teachers


A few days ago, I posted my concerns regarding the contorted logic of the Brookings report on evaluating teacher evaluation systems. More recently, NEPC posted a slightly revised version of that blog post here: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/Passing%20muster%20fails%20muster.pdf

Below is an addition to the NEPC version which was not in my original post, but rather, a comment I had made in response to a comment in my post.

The awkward issue here is that this brief and calculator are prepared by a truly exceptional group of scholars, and not just reform-minded pundits. It strikes me that we technocrats have started to fall for our own contorted logic – that the available metric is the true measure – and the quality of all else can only be evaluated against that measure. We’ve become myopic in our analysis, and we’ve forgotten all of the technical caveats of our own work, simply assuming the
technical caveats of any/all alternatives to be far greater.

Beyond all of that, I fear that technicians working within the political arena are deferring judgment on important technical concerns that have real ethical implications. When a technician knows that one choice is better (or worse) than another, one measure or model better than another, and that these technical choices affect real lives, the technician should – MUST – be up front/honest about these preferences.

Of course, this all got me thinking about our responsibilities as social science researchers and especially as social science researchers attempting to use complex statistical models to affect public policy in ways that in turn has real consequences for real people.

Now, I’m no expert in ethics, so I’ll not opine much further on the topic. However, I believe that I’ve become somewhat sensitized to ethical concerns and dilemmas that occur in such contexts, perhaps by various interactions with some pretty good ethical thinkers over time and perhaps even by my time working at the Ethical Culture Schools in NYC. Interestingly, one noted alum of ECS was J. Robert Oppenheimer (“father of the atomic bomb”), for whom a physics lab at the school is named.

This all reminds me of a song

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3 Comments

  1. Owwwwww!! But your point is very well taken. “Being agnostic” on matters where very real people are bound to be hurt is not merely a technical failing, but is prime example of a certain kind of moral blindness….see Werner von Braun.

    Unfortunately, policy mavens take no oaths “to do no harm.”

    1. “Once the missiles are up, who cares where they come down. That’s not my department says Werner von Braun.”

      1. Precisely….Oy!

        And the entire agnostic technocratic discussion is rather “banal” in an Arendtian sense. It is so ordinary that many of us are socialized not to see the potential evil embedded within it. That is what I find so insidious. It’s also written to appeal to policy makers as a “bloodless” proposal, although if implemented, good teachers will lose their jobs thanks to a bad evaluation system. And the public system will literally bleed teachers, both those who are “caught” in this technocratic spider’s web, and those who have no desire to be randomly devoured.

        Then again, perhaps the “secret agenda” for this proposal is that it’s actually an employment program to keep some trial lawyers busy—as various school districts have their collective pants “sued off” for wrongful termination. I understand recently graduated JD’s are having a tough, tough, time landing positions…. Perhaps opportunity will be knocking.

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