“An Immodest Proposal–Or, Rather, a Done Deal”

by Guest Blogger
October 16th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

It is a melancholic experience to leave the comfort of one’s own Neighborhood and wander through beer-sticky streets, ears aching from the wails of illiterate and impoverished adults and babes, and to apprehend, as one strides past the grim Institutions with their barred windows and metal detectors, that behind those walls pace Bad Teachers who impoverish our Culture, Spirit, and Economy as they turn out tender ignorami no better prepared for the merciless World and Workplace than a suckling babe is prepared to navigate the Skies.

And yet, we stand on the brink of a golden realm—one of unforeseen fortune and fortunetelling—the realm of Science, the power and speed of Value-Added Assessments. Not since Herbert Spencer published his great Principles of Psychology have we been so close to unlocking a Science of Mind. We can calculate in an instant whether a Teacher is good or bad, and then use such calculations to build better Teachers and thus a better World. No one knows better than the ordinary man or woman how vexing the Problems of Life can be; therefore I, who speak on behalf of all of you, offer my gratitude to Science for plowing through the Muck and showing us the way to Success, to which each of us has a Right.

This new Science of Value-Added Assessments (that is, of evaluating Teachers by their students’ test scores) has been maligned, transmogrified, mocked, even criticized, by a full host of well-meaning but overly thoughtful Thinkers—Economists, Historians, Journalists, and, to no one’s surprise, Teachers themselves. The Los Angeles Times made the tragic mistake of exposing this tender Science before it was fully on its feet—by publishing the names and ratings of Los Angeles public school Teachers. Even ardent value-added proponents were saddened by this act. I, too, wept over the LA Times’ injustice and ineptitude—but not because I doubted the virtue of Value-Added Assessment, public or private. Rather, it distressed me that our Science was being offered up for Inspection—nay, poking and cutting— while it was still learning to walk. When you learn of its true Purposes and Destiny (which I have gleaned from secret interviews with Experts who requested Anonymity) you will surely agree that no better and firmer Science could possibly have graced our Land.

Value-Added Assessments offer only limited benefits to existing Teachers. When a new Teacher enters the classroom, her fate is 65 percent sealed, according to a Statistician. Oh, I have heard of the promises of Professional Development, but whoever has visited one of those Professional Development sessions knows that such promise resides largely in the Imagination. They are filled with Nonsense, I regret to say. I have heard that Teachers make Improvements over time, but many of them leave before they have a chance to improve, and those who do improve would have done so anyway, with or without Value-Added Formulas. Teachers leave or stay, improve or don’t, in accordance with their own Efforts, Education, Inclinations, and Abilities, not to mention the Conditions in which they work and the Quality of the Curriculum. In addition, we know that Human Nature left to its own Devices contains many Flaws. Each of us consists of many parts, some excellent, some not. Unless we have millions of Dollars and a willing Surgeon, we are unable to mix and match our pieces.

Therefore, the future of Value-Added Assessments lies not in rating the whole Teacher, but in rating her individual Parts. Should we determine that a certain part is effective in the classroom, we will recruit new Teachers with a matching Part—or, better still, the Part itself. Compiling successful characteristics, we will ultimately compose the Perfect Teacher. Such efforts are already underway. Teach for America has Formulas that identify successful Personality Traits; Doug Lemov has assembled a Catalogue of successful Classroom Practices. Yet Body Parts play a much larger role in Teacher Effectiveness than has been suspected; an education CEO told me recently, “It is the Body that we tend to disregard, yet even the Greeks were aware of its Importance.” Let me begin with one overlooked example: the Chin.

You may have assumed, dear public, that all Chins are equally successful in the classroom; with our abundance of Data we have found this not to be so. Pointed, protruding Chins, especially those that tremble, produce significantly lower student test scores than rounded but defined Chins, raised upward slightly and held still. Non-Chins and hidden Chins, surprisingly, have mixed results, but when they are lifted to about 15 degrees past horizontal, they tend to correlate with a slight improvement in Test Scores (in Mathematics, but not in Reading). Astonishing as this may seem, it is not the only Discovery of its kind.

Like Chin shapes, Nose shapes are associated with Effectiveness of Teaching. A sharply upturned Nose has been found to correlate with low Test Scores, but not the the very lowest (these are reserved for the Running Nose). A large Crescent Nose correlates with slightly improved Test Scores, though Results fluctuate and depend on the Subject. Noses that honk when they blow tend to provoke Laughter in the Classroom but not higher Scores, except in AP Physics. The best of all Noses—the Nose of the Highly Effective Teacher—is triangular, with modest Nostrils, and not especially large. Incidentally, a Doctor has disclosed that those who undergo “Nose Jobs” do not experience a change in their Teaching Effectiveness. It is their natal Nose—the Nose that rode with them into the World—that tells the Truth about how they will teach.

I am not authorized to divulge the nature of the secret Negotiations between Value-Added Scientists and Facebook, if they are indeed in progress, but I will hint that perhaps—just perhaps—Facebook with its vast trove of personal Data can help us find the best Chins and Noses for the classroom—and from there, Elbows, Fingernails, and Livers. Face recognition technology allows us to peruse millions of photographs in a very short time, and Facebook Users are already sharing Pictures of other Body Parts. You may object that Noses and Chins and such have little to do with Mathematics or Grammar, but I assure you that schools no longer teach Mathematics or Grammar. They teach Success. To this end, you will agree, we need successful Teachers—or, rather, Parts of Teachers. But how, you may ask, can a Part of a Teacher Teach? It is not in vain that a great Futurologist said, “Virtual Schools are the Future.” Virtual Schools allow us to take a Chin, Nose, Liver, Knuckle, Lock of Hair, Tone of Voice, Assertive Attitude, and Proven Technique, put them together, and make an Ideal Teacher.

Once the Ideal Teachers have been Data-determined and assembled from Ideal Parts, we will fill our Virtual Schools with them. At that point we will fire all of the imperfect Teachers—in other words, everyone. We will announce our great appreciation for the Humans who have toiled year after year, with great heart and spirit, under difficult Conditions. We will explain to them that while we do not fault them for being human, we cannot afford Humanity any more. Humanity simply does not make enough progress or stand up to global Competition. We will roll out our new composite Teacher—an unprecedented specimen of Perfection, a melding of Looks and Career. All test scores will soar through the Roof, but we will have no more need for said Roof or for human Structures in general. We will find ourselves whisked up to a new plateau of High Online Performance Everywhere (HOPE), where it never rains and Scores never go down. Just what that World will look like, we do not know, but it will be devoid of Complications, Gradations, Melancholy, Joy, Love, Challenge, Modesty, and Discernment, all codewords for the decrepit old Land in which we lived (or through which we wandered from time to time). You will not miss Humanity’s wending Ways. We promise you this. As a New Breed, you will not realize they are gone.

Diana Senechal, a former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture.


  1. Saddened though I am to find that these Standards of physiognomy (I also love the alternate term “anthroposcopy”) are insufficiently precise to let me know for sure whether I am suited to be an ideal teacher, I was pleased to find Dr. Senechal weigh in on the problem of mechanization. (I add a shout-out in support of Jonathan Swift and anyone who capitalizes all conceptual nouns.)

    It seems that business learned years ago — with Frank Gilbreth, the patriarch of the original “Cheaper by the Dozen”, being one who was mocked (albeit lovingly) for this more than half a century ago — that the dream of refining human beings down to factory specs was a false one. Odd, then, that ostensibly business-derived forces seem to be pushing for reducing teaching down to a numbers game, especially with the sorts of numbers those forces seem to be trying to use. There’s a disconnect here.

    I’ve been in education long enough to know that there’s no magic bullet, no perfectly scalable element that we can pump money into in order to make our current teachers become super-teachers. It takes time, energy, and lots of experience just to assess teachers effectively; sorry, but no test score can replace that effort. If we have very highly educated teachers who know their subjects well, are committed to collegial formation of professional communities, and share high expectations for themselves and their students with regard to content and skills and comportment, though, that could be a start in our quest to make education work better.

    Just to be safe, I’m off to measure my nostrils.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — October 16, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  2. Anthroposcopy! That’s great. Thanks for the Comment, Carl.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 16, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

  3. [...] “An Immodest Proposal–Or, Rather, a Done Deal” « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by “An Immodest Proposal–Or, Rather, a Done Deal” « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — October 16, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

  4. In the immortal words of Thomas Dolby, she blinded me with Science. Hilarious. Phrenologically hilarious. And–may I beg leave to say?–disrupting.


    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — October 17, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  5. Disconcertingly, your tome prompted the bringing together of hands in an ancient celebratory manner, and a reversion to primitive expression once known as laughter. That regressive state prompted an urge to extend a middle digit finger and point it toward the billionaires.

    Comment by john thompson — October 17, 2010 @ 7:49 am

  6. I can’t wait for us to reach the “plateau of HOPE”. Makes me think of tech utopianists’ excitement about the “Singularity” –the day when our biology fully merges with computers.

    “You will not miss Humanity’s wending Ways. We promise you this. As a New Breed, you will not realize they are gone.” This is true. Those who lack a good humanities education (99% of us) already do not worry much about losing our humanity. The concept doesn’t even compute. Humanity has already been redefined as “consumer” and “computer user”.

    We ignore literature and history at our peril. A robust liberal arts curriculum, I’m increasingly convinced, is the ONLY path to a sane and balanced judgment. Without it, we fall prey to demagogues like Glen Beck and others who purvey false and dangerous interpretations of the world. Forget about being able to read books; we need humans who can “read” society.

    Comment by Ben F — October 17, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  7. “The Hon. HORACE MAN (sic) said: “I declare myself a hundred times more indebted to Phrenology than to all the metaphysical works I have ever read. Again, I look upon Phrenology as a guide to Philosophy and the handmaid of Christianity.”

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — October 17, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

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