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

Posted on May 26, 2011

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:

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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