Sunday, May 31, 2020

What happens if we remember we're all actually related?

We are all of us cousins. Every human being on the planet. It may not be through a long-lost aunt or a great grandfather, but it’s probably not much more than a great great great grandparent. That’s remarkable. If you believe in science, we all come from a common ancestor from 200,000 years ago and our ancestors’ paths have probably crossed multiple times since. If you believe the world came into being six or seven thousand years ago—I don’t but I’ll grant it for the moment—then our common ancestor is even more recent, and we’re more cousins than ever.

We need to acknowledge this, that we’re all related, all one family. Millions of our cousins around the world are sick. Millions more are impoverished and living in slums. Millions are governed by cousin tyrants who don’t seem to care about their extended family, or forgot they are part of one. And many millions more continue to wonder why bombs and militaries are more important to some than food, healthcare, education, and children. A few thousand of our wealthiest cousins control most of the world’s resources and could change the course of history if they wanted, but they’ve shown few signs that’s what they intend to do.

From within this big collection of cousins we have some who are just flat out terrible, and they deserve a spanking and then some. But we also have a ton of our cousins willing to do something, even though it’s hard. These are the cousins who see a wreck in the middle of the night and without hesitation risk their life to pull another cousin to safety. Or who put on last week’s soiled surgical mask to help a cousin overcome COVID. Or who teach the future generation of cousins and give a hungry child their lunch, because that’s just what you do when you have a little more than someone who has nothing. Or that protest against racism, sexism, despotism, bias of all kinds, and generally mean people. All these cousins and more need to pull together now more than ever. The future depends on it. Our youngest cousins may not have a future if we don’t.

I live in America, by the simple fact of birth. I’m white, male, and while I was raised by loving parents who struggled financially it was never a question whether or not I would make it. And I did. I’m not rich, but squarely middle class, and I have what I need. And here’s the truth. I worked really hard, but I didn’t work any harder than a million others who didn’t make it. I legitimately tried, but I can’t say I tried harder than all the rest. And yet I’m here and so many aren’t.

I always had an invisible advantage, an unseen leg up on the part of America that didn’t look like me. I have never walked down a street worried about being singled out and silenced or harmed. I have never walked by a police officer hoping they weren’t one of the few bad ones and today is about to be my unlucky day. I walk out my door every day expecting I’ll get a fair shake. I never worried I was being under paid. No one has ever crossed the street to avoid me or been fearful just by being in my presence. My bet is that if I ever commit a crime, I’ll be given the chance to turn myself in, and probably even negotiate on the terms of my surrender. If I do go to prison, my invisible advantage is likely to get me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my sentencing.

And let me be clear about something—I get a lot of attention when I walk down any street. I’m a one-armed man. I lost an arm nearly to my shoulder in an accident forty-nine years ago when I was six, so people—cops included—have been staring at me my whole life. I got stared at when I was six and it happened a few days ago on my fifty-fifth birthday, and most days in between. And while a few who don’t know me may feel sorry for me (shame on them for judging—they should get to know me first), not one time did I come under suspicion for my difference. Not one time was I ever mistreated by an authority for being who I was. Not one time was I ever presumed guilty for being born. I used to think that made me lucky, but that’s wrong. To claim I’m lucky to be born white presumes it’s best to be white, when it should be best to be who you are. It has never been the case in this country where everyone is given the chance to do that.

Way too many of us have forgotten that 200,000 or six thousand years ago, take your pick, we would have called the same people grandma and grandpa. They wouldn’t look exactly like us or communicate like us, but that’s not the point. The point is we’re all connected.

Imagine explaining to this grandma and grandpa slavery, and describing how the tiniest of genetic differences, the pigmentation in one’s skin, led to the notion that a certain color made some cousins worth not very much as humans, but a great deal as property. Imagine explaining the massive scope of slavery in America’s history, and the fact that much our country was built on their uncompensated backs. I imagine these original grandparents would express outrage and fury at that sort of treatment of their family members, and then relief that it was outlawed a hundred and fifty years ago. I can also imagine them expressing even more outrage when they learned that it took a century for the country to finally admit a bit of wrongdoing and extend some basic civil rights to those descendants of former slaves who had been denied even that. And even more outraged when they discovered the number of cousins who had their fingers crossed when the admission was made. And even more if they could see the number of people who act as if they’re sorry it was even said.

Imagine telling them that a lot of people in the wealthiest country that their great great great great great grandchildren had ever created now regularly apply bias to practically everyone with non-white skin, and accept as good and right treatment of those with dissimilar pigmentations that they condemn and punish harshly when done to the similarly pigmentated. And now it’s not just pigmentation, but language as well. Who knows what will be next? Our grandparents would likely wonder why so many of the cousins always seem to need someone to pick on, or even hate, and how that could possibly make a person feel better.

Last week some of my cousins who I don’t know thought it was a good idea to gather their semi-automatic weapons and march into the Michigan senate. Their pigmentation happened to be white and so they were kindly escorted out and given a scolding. This week an unarmed black cousin who I also didn't know but had a lot fewer opportunities than me and may or may not have tried to buy something with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill died when a cop decided handcuffs and compliance with his demands weren’t enough and kneeled on his neck until he was dead. I’m just glad that the cousins with their semi-automatics weren’t black and didn’t meet that cop, because I don’t think they would have been kindly escorted anywhere, except to prison, via tear gas, handcuffs, and some knees on some necks.

I’ve had it. I haven’t always understood the advantage I have of being a white guy because from my angle it looked invisible. Just part of the status quo. But it isn’t invisible to lots of my cousins. It’s not innocent or innocuous. And the more it gets ignored the more likely it is to become malignant, to justify violence against those who do see it by those who refuse to. I’m learning to see it. I’ve been learning for a long time, and I’ll be learning it for the rest of my life if that’s what it takes. I hope someday we’re all able to see it, maybe even at the same time, because at that exact moment suddenly there won’t be anything to see. We’ll all just be cousins again.

Let’s get there. It’s time.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Being accountable to a test result...

Being accountable to any test result is being accountable to the wrong thing. Right now, the most important test in the world is for the Coronavirus. The information it provides is immensely useful, and yet to treat that information as more than information about the presence or absence of the virus is a mistake.

Neither outcome tells us anything about a person’s overall health. Neither outcome signals anything about what has happened or what will happen. And both outcomes come with a caveat—there is a small possibility of the result being wrong, of suggesting you have it when you don’t, or that you don’t when you do. To treat either outcome as more than it is absent contexts, details, and a whole lot of additional information renders any next step invalid, likely to be unhelpful, or even harmful.

All tests suffer from this limitation. It is a consequence of trying to squeeze as much precision as possible out of a single result, and the necessary price we pay for needing and trying to do so. More accurate results provide confidence that studies of the contexts, details, and any applicable information can be more expertly applied. But really, all any result does is move us a step or two away from chaos. It does not, as is so commonly and wrongly presumed, put us a step or two away from surety. And while that is still so much better than having no information at all, it is no more than one piece of a much larger puzzle.

What would be terrible for all of us is a lockstep approach that failed to consider context, that applied a generic solution to a result, or that refused to consider the unique conditions of an individual. Medicine would be reduced to a simple decision tree and we would be infinitely worse off than we are. It would be like thinking we’re through with a puzzle after the first two pieces come together.

Educational testing based on a specific methodology—the variety used in state testing programs, or the norm-referenced tests sold commercially, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or NWEA’s MAP—is now guilty of encouraging that exact sort of behavior. These too are tests that produce a narrow result that move us a step or two from chaos but no further. The results are nothing more than points on a continuum (some of which will be wrong) based on a moment in time that lacks context, cause, or professional interpretation. Yet to sell more product or to support bad educational policy, the declaration gets made that the results are more than they are, that they can directly inform teaching and learning, indicate quality or effectiveness, and replace professionalism.

This is as false and misleading and harmful as thinking that a diagnosis equates with a solution. All test results require interpretation through the broader technical lens of a professional equipped with the full context of the individual’s situation and current best practices. And they require the ability to question that lens, to recognize it as always incomplete and able to be improved upon. Only then is the professional capable of determining an optimal path forward for that student or patient while at the same time being responsible for making that path better for the next time.

I used to be kinder to the test publishing world—especially when I was in it and it was paying my bills and I still believed we were capable of staying within the limitations of what a test is—but the field has strayed way too far from its usefulness of putting tools in the hands of a researcher and instead has become something else altogether.

We would never tolerate straying so far from what a thing is in the tools that will help us through the pandemic because the consequences would be unthinkable. We shouldn’t tolerate it in the education of our nation’s children for the exact same reason.