The death of Meadow Pollack and the tragedy of metrics

After the end of the Cold War, it came to light that the Soviet Union had engaged in a massive evasion of international treaty obligations to drive whales to the edge of mass extinction. Soviet mariners killed an estimated 180,000 whales despite having signed a treaty agreeing to killing only a fraction of that amount, not because there was any great demand for whale products.

The Soviet Union had plenty of oil, and there wasn’t much demand for anything else, either. Soviet planners, however, set fishing targets based on the weight the mariners brought in, and whales had the great misfortune of being heavy. Soviet fishermen literally would weigh their catch and often discard the corpse of a whale that had been slaughtered for no purpose whatsoever. The tyranny of metrics killed tens of thousands of whales.

Recently I had the opportunity to experience a talk by Rosalyn Merrick from Georgia GOAL, who sagely noted “the Devil has been busy.” The Devil has been busy with metrics, and the victims stretch beyond our oceanic friends.

Andrew Pollack and Max Eden’s book, “Why Meadow Died,” is an incredibly illuminating and emotionally draining read. Pollack’s daughter Meadow was one of the 17 casualties of the Parkland shooting. The authors lay out a case in painstaking and convincing detail that this horrible tragedy could have been prevented if any one of literally dozens of people had made a different decision regarding the persistently violent and deeply troubled student who carried out the massacre. In every instance, the tyranny of metrics nudged them toward a decision that helped enable the tragedy.

Instead of providing the help the shooter needed, and which he himself had requested, the school provided firearms training via its ROTC. The shooter was legally able to purchase the murder weapon since he (unjustly) had a clear legal record despite a long string of school-based incidents that resulted in the police being called to his residence 45 times – without an arrest.

Meadow and the other victims were a “Tiffany” of the most tragic sort imaginable, literally having lost their lives as a result of the actions and inactions of adults tasked with the management of their education.

I cannot do justice to “Why Meadow Died” in a single blog post. There are multiple layers regarding the decisions that contributed to the tragedy. The powerlessness of the frontline Broward County educators (who hated those policies but whose associations publicly groused about them while doing nothing to change them) is both striking and sickening. For a determined optimist such as myself, the book was a harsh reminder of the dehumanizing aspects of huge, impersonal bureaucracies. Florida school districts have improved academically over the years, but it’s hard to imagine a school system doing a worse job before and after this tragedy.

In recent years, the limits of central planning to improve schools have become increasingly apparent. The ability of such mechanisms to do actual harm, however, deserves greater attention. Meadow was ultimately the victim of an organized effort by district officials to create the appearance that student detentions and expulsions were in decline. This decline did in fact happen and was nationally celebrated as a model for other districts to emulate.

Always be careful what you wish for.

“Why Meadow Died” lays out a methodical case that Broward expulsions and detentions did not decline because student behavior had improved, or because other methods had made them unnecessary. Rather, expulsions and detentions fell simply because the central office dictated that frontline educators not utilize such methods despite the lack of effective substitutes.

We don’t know if the Parkland shooter, in his troubled mind, thought he could get away with murder. We do know, however, that he had gotten away with a long list of violent, abusive, bullying, suicidal and racist acts for years before the tragedy. We know he should have been attending a school designed to help students like him instead of Parkland. We know he asked to return to one only to be denied in advance of the tragedy.

There are similarities between this phenomenon and faculty-led cheating scandals, or the repugnant effort by Texas state officials and educators to reduce special education enrollment. In the latter case, special education enrollment didn’t decline because there was any less incidence of disability, or because Texas schools did a better job of screening or helping students. Rather, a diktat came down from Austin that districts with more than an 8.5 percent special education rate would receive extra scrutiny and audits.

Meet your metric comrade, or else!

Before the Houston Chronicle revealed this horrific violation of federal special education law, the statewide special education rate fell to exactly 8.5 percent. This not only reflects poorly upon the Texas Education Agency, but also upon the thousands of Texas school district officials who meekly carried out the directive by denying special education services to hundreds of thousands of students over a 14-year period.

Fairness dictates that I note that many districts exceeded the limit and suffered the consequences; it also requires me to note that not one single person in the system took action to stop this disastrous policy from proceeding covertly. Here’s a tip: If the TEA tries anything even vaguely like this again, someone please call a press conference in Austin.

Likewise, we have repeatedly seen instances in which scores on state accountability exams steadily improved while scores on tests like NAEP and PISA declined. No one has the incentive or ability to drill to the test items on NAEP or PISA, while both the motive and the capacity to do so on state tests are ample. Are the schools doing a better job equipping students with the academic knowledge and skills needed for success, or are they simply training them to get past a state test?

Better check the NAEP, but the public’s disgust with the current state of standardized testing has a firm basis in the lived experiences of families.

Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, “The sharpest and most contentious divides in ed policy are between those who are guided by parents’ wishes and those who wish to guide parents.” Parents want their children to be safe. They don’t want bullying in their schools. They have never conducted an elaborate covert conspiracy against special needs children. They want schooling to be more than endless test prep.

I’m as interested in technocrats “guiding” parents as I would be in having the Gosplan return to “guide” fishermen. “Why Meadow Died” strongly reinforces this conclusion by laying bare the disconnect between the preferences and perverse incentives of remote system administrators and the common sense of the public.

Education Politics