GRAVES: Unlocking the puzzles and mysteries of NCLBNCLB reports communicate virtually every possible bit of data on student achievement that anyone could ever want while simultaneously providing a clear message — what is found on these pages is not only uninteresting, it is also incomprehensible. And, so, the only person who ever reads them is the unfortunate school principal who had to create them. They are, in other words, a mystery.
By: Joe Graves, superintendent, Mitchell School District
Although I am quite sure they have progenitors galore in the past — one that pops to mind is Carl Sagan, the popularizer of all sorts of otherwise opaque scientific endeavors from just a few decades ago — I have to admit the sudden spate of authors providing sociological and economic analysis in wildly popular books still takes me aback. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner must have amassed piles of cash that would choke a horse from the books, “Freakonomics” and “Superfreakonomics.” Seemingly all of Thomas Friedman’s books have been bestsellers, but “The World is Flat” started to go into so many editions, they began labeling it like software evolutions — i.e. 1.0, 2.0, etc. After a while, of course, this sort of literary genre fills up and the competition among authors becomes fierce, winnowing down the field to only the best.
One of those best is Malcolm Gladwell, whose books “Blink,” “The Tipping Point,” and “Outliers” have all offered fascinating insights into how we think, how social phenomena take hold (or don’t), and how people excel. Which is why I was disappointed when he came out, in 2009, with “What the Dog Saw,” nothing more than a compilation of his columns from The New Yorker. Scratch the cover of such works and what you’ll find is a blatant attempt on behalf of the author to quickly cash in on his past successes by reprinting earlier work. I suppose doing so is just too tempting to resist but one hopes for better. (The worst example of this sort of literary privateering occurs when a recently deceased author’s heirs cash in by printing unfinished or just roundfiled works which typically harm the writer’s reputation but — the key point — lines their pockets. Such people are worse scoundrels than the servants who stripped Scrooge’s death bed of its curtains while he still laid there for the few pennies the secondhand shop would pay for them.)
But I digress. Returning to Gladwell, it was thus an unexpected pleasure to read one of the book’s articles, Open Secrets. Though it tells the story of the Enron collapse, it also, as is typical of Gladwell, makes a much larger point. The catastrophic fall of the Enron Corp. was different than most other scandals, explains the author, because the information that precipitated it was not, as is typical of scandals and collapses, at all hidden. In fact, the particular accounting information that pointed out the overly optimistic revenue projections (as well as the operations upon which they were based) could be found in their various, published financial statements. The problem wasn’t that the information wasn’t accessible. Rather, it was just that nobody who understood it was looking in the right places. As is sometimes said of hopelessly blinkered people, those who were watching Enron couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Gladwell refers to this issue as the “puzzle vs. mystery” problem.
When a problem is a puzzle, what is needed is more information to solve it. Think of the old Concentration game on TV which had contestants trying to interpret a picture of which they could only see small parts. As more parts became visible, the puzzle could be solved. It is the same situation with “Wheel of Fortune.” Regulators and analysts and media investigators, Gladwell believes, are so completely entrenched in the puzzle paradigm that they are virtually incapable of working on mysteries. They seek more information when they need to be seeking less, further confounding the problem. This is important because as the world continues to burst wide open due to the Internet and every communication technology not heretofore known to man, puzzles are becoming increasingly uncommon. But mysteries abound.
Indeed they do. The No Child Left Behind Act comes with extensive reporting requirements on student achievement in schools. Walk into any school building in South Dakota and you will see posted on a wall near the office a series of 8½ x 11 sheets of paper in the latest (federally mandated) hues that color printers can provide telling the school’s student achievement results on myriad factors including ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status, gender, etc. They communicate virtually every possible bit of data on student achievement that anyone could ever want while simultaneously providing a clear message — what is found on these pages is not only uninteresting, it is also incomprehensible. And, so, the only person who ever reads them is the unfortunate school principal who had to create them. They are, in other words, a mystery.
It is why every October, the Mitchell School District puts out a district report card (DRC) which includes all of the federally mandated reports but also two pages which succinctly summarize that data in an easy-to-read, chart format. I’m not saying that as a result of this the patrons of the Mitchell School District are eagerly anticipating this year’s DRC or that those two pages are on anyone’s best seller list. But it is nevertheless true that an honest attempt to communicate a school district’s student achievement and other performance data should be done in a way that makes clear not just the trees, but also the forest, especially when all those trees have the net effect of blocking the view of the forest.
Hopefully, as the federal government changes the rules on NCLB in the near future, it takes Gladwell’s puzzle vs. mystery dichotomy to heart rather than treating all mysteries as if they were puzzles.