Friday, May 28, 2010

Against maximizing

Is there a more bureaucratic word than “maximize”? The word was born for PowerPoint presentations. To maximize standardized test scores, we may have to neglect untestable qualities like creativity, initiative, skepticism, or the ability to ask a good question; we may have to train our kids to be passively obedient to all authority figures; we may have to cut luxuries like art and music from the curriculum; we may have to bribe the kids to quiet down and pay attention; we may have to squeeze the pleasure out of education and make learning a chore. But who can object to “maximizing academic achievement”?

Maximizing any one variable, of course, tends to come at the expense of all other variables. Such an approach has a name, borrowed from economics: the “corner solution.” As Jason Kuznicki explains:

A corner solution arises whenever, when faced with a tradeoff among two or more variables, we declare that one of the variables is to be minimized [or maximized] regardless of the state of the others. In public policy, some corner solutions are justified, but most are not.

“We have to control our borders” is one example of a corner solution. It posits that unauthorized border crossings are to be minimized, and it says nothing about the other factors that probably ought to be relevant to sound border policy – factors like expense, loss of civil liberties, collateral damage, our international reputation, and the sheer fact that without illegal immigrants, many sectors of the economy might entirely collapse. The corner solution ignores all that. In so doing, it obtains a clarity that may or may not be real, but that is politically very useful.

“Politically very useful”: that’s not how I like to think about my kids.

It is delusional to think that education is a science or can be approached like one. You don’t help kids become intelligent, capable, happy adults by maximizing quantifiable variables; you do it through judgment, experience, and wisdom. We should be freeing teachers to develop and use those qualities, rather than forcing them to execute some pseudo-scientific centrally-determined plan.

Incidentally, a search for the word “maximize” on the PBIS website brings up a hundred and fourteen results.

..How can I comment?