six million man“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was” Opening to the tv show The Six Million Dollar Man.

Though that was the opening to one of my favorite 70’s tv shows, it also seems to be the mind set of many educational professionals, and by that I mean researchers, psychologists, testing companies, curriculum developers and bureaucrats. If you look at the research that is being funded by the USDoED in toto you notice a definitive trend. They are looking at which physical and mental factors contribute what to a child’s overall learning. From this research they intend to develop policies which will allow schools to pull the right levers on children to get them to produce the desired educational output.

For example, this is the latest study they are looking to fund [emphasis mine].

Abstract: The study will examine relationships between non-cognitive factors (e.g., growth mindset, learning strategies, and self-efficacy) and school environment and contextual factors (e.g., perceptions of school safety, supportive teachers and counselors, usefulness of academic work) and three measures of successful 9th grade transitions—overall freshman GPA, number of 9th grade course failures, and freshman year attendance for three districts in New Mexico. It will also examine whether non-cognitive and school environment factors contribute to the prediction of successful 9th grade transitions after academic factors have been taken into account. The study will use data that will be collected via a survey that was created with assistance from members of the New Mexico Achievement Gap Alliance. The survey data will be used in combination with extant student-level academic and demographic data that will be obtained from the New Mexico Public Education Department. This study will also include comparisons between Hispanic, Native American and white students.

Let’s look at the highlighted concepts.

Growth mindset – whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University Psychologist, coined this term in her research to explain why some people succeed and others, with seemingly similar talent, do not. She claims to have found that people who believe, for instance, that they “don’t have a mind for math” will actually work less hard to solve math problems than people who believe they can, through their own hard work, understand and use a math concept.

Non-Cognitive Factors – otherwise known as soft skills. These include things like curiosity, conscientiousness, yes (ugh) grit, persistence, self-control, and self-confidence.

New Mexico Achievement Gap Alliance – six research alliances which “provide applied research and evaluation, technical support, and information and products to inform education policy and practice to Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.” The REL Southwest is one of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.

This particular study is looking for a correlation between these types of non-cognitive factors and school environment to see if we can predict which kids will successfully pass the 9th grade, (as determined by GPA, #course failures and attendance.) They will collect the data on non-cognitive factors via surveys.

The take away for parents comes in the next section which says they will look at students in three districts and then combine their survey responses with other demographic data supplied by the state. Note that all of this will be student specific data, not aggregate. Otherwise they would not be able to draw the correlation between individual non-cognitive data and individual success.

Will they have a detailed dossier on all students in NM that includes their belief about their ability to succeed? Not yet. But if the study finds the correlation they are looking for, I suspect that they will eventually have a policy requiring the collection of this type of data on all students so they can begin adjusting those non-cognitive factors for students whose scores are too low.

I wonder if all the parents in those schools will be asked permission for their children to fill out the surveys. I wonder if they will be told that the state will be adding additional data to the study to specifically identify their child who will end up with a much more telling student portfolio than the other students. Can you imagine how very valuable that kind of information might be to future employers?

In the mean time such information has other uses. The LAUSD has been piloting a school accountability system in which “20 percent of a school’s score will be measures of social and emotional factors, defined as non-cognitive skills and rates of absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions.”  See, once we see something has potential as a predictive measure, we will use it as a stick to get schools/teachers to change/improve that measure. In the future your child simply won’t be allowed to think that they cannot master something.

At this point I am thinking of my husband who loved golf, or at least the concept of golf. He is one of those highly competitive individuals who believes that, with the right instruction, practice and equipment, anyone can master anything. He threw himself into that game spending hours on the driving range, the course, and various golf equipment stores. Did he get better? Yes. Enough to go pro? No. And there was a cost besides time and money. While his mind liked golf, his back did not, and that began to affect all other aspects of his life.

Fortunately he was allowed to let go of golf and take up biking (with, yes, the hours and equipment), but his overall health is much better. What happens to kids to who are told they can master some skill which they really don’t innately possess and they can’t stop trying? Not only are they supposed to do it for themselves, they need to do it for their district. Who is worried about the possible side affects of such manipulation? And when a portion of the district’s evaluation is based on student survey answers about social and emotional factors, don’t you think that is another test the schools will soon be teaching the right answers to? Campbell’s Law folks.

Is it really the job of the school to take a child and rebuild them into an image the state has determined will make them better? Do we want teachers who are not just content experts but also master manipulator psychologists focused on Skinnerian transformation of our children? Shouldn’t we be answering that kind of question before we fund all this research and collect all this data?

The USDoED wants to hear from you, but they are very specific about what they want to hear.

The Department of Education is especially interested in public comment addressing the following issues: (1) Is this collection necessary to the proper functions of the Department; (2) will this information be processed and used in a timely manner; (3) is the estimate of burden accurate; (4) how might the Department enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (5) how might the Department minimize the burden of this collection on the respondents, including through the use of information technology.

They don’t want to hear about your thoughts on the long term implications for collecting this type of data. They don’t want to hear whether you think the state has a right to give away your child’s data. Basically, they just want to know how they can do even more with your child’s private data without you realizing that your tax money is going to fund personnel time to collect and transmit data, rather than funding actual classroom teaching. The comment deadline is September 8, 2015.

We are going to try to highlight other times when the USDoED wants to hear from the public with a sidebar dedicated to Federal Register Notices and Due Dates on the Missouri Education Watchdog home page. Our list will by no means cover all the department notices, nor can we promise to catch all the important ones. There are ten regional centers funded by the USDoED all thinking up new ways to perpetuate their existence as long as the money is flowing. We don’t have the time or personnel to track all of that. But you are welcome any time to check out what all they are looking to fund through this link.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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