Monday, August 17, 2015

Feedback loops: it's not just students who need them

Many jobs have built-in feed-back loops. You produce lousy work, and you get negative critiques and poor sales. You interact poorly with customers, and you get indignant reactions and diminishing patronage. Online reviews of all sorts of professionals are proliferating around the internet--from doctors to realtors to carpet cleaners to college professors.

So jobs that lack feed-back loops really stand out now. One of them, I recently realized, is psychiatric evaluation. Conducting and writing up evaluations, for some psychotherapists, is their main occupation. In the absence of follow-up treatments or longitudinal tracking, these people receive no information about the accuracy of their prognostications. Most insulated from feedback are those evaluators who contract primarily, not with private customers (who might vote with their feet), but with public agencies (which tend toward inertia and cronyism). Having this realization helped take the sting out of J's most recent psych eval. But more on that in my next post.

Certain key pockets of the education sector also lack feedback loops. Take admissions departments. However carefully and comprehensively they review applicants, how often do they receive feedback, years later, about how particular acceptances or rejections panned out? How often do they hear about accepted applicants who failed out, were kicked out, or who tormented their classmates and professors? Whenever a problematic student comes along who lacks basic reading skills, basic writing skills and or a basic work ethic, or makes extravagant excuses, unreasonable demands, and nasty accusations (the kinds of things that often accompany being severely lazy or under-skilled), or who cheats their way through assignments (ditto), I wish there were official channels for reporting back to the admissions committee. In the worst cases, when I find myself and others spending dozens of hours on a single problematic student, I wish the admissions department were required to dip into its budget and reimburse us for at least some of our extra time.

On the flip side, how often do admissions departments hear about rejected applicants who thrived elsewhere and made great contributions later on in life?

Then there are K12 classroom teachers. While the occasional K12 teacher gets reviewed on sites like, most aren't, and even if they were, there's little opportunity to for students/parents to vote with their feet. And while testing and other assessments take up huge chunks of class time, how often do they function as meaningful, teacher-directed feedback? Standardized tests scores provide only a couple of quantitative data points (e.g., general scores for reading, writing, and math), even these measurements are only as reliable as the (often problematic) tests themselves are. As for the potentially more granular and meaningful class-specific assessments, many schools and teachers seem to treat these exclusively as feedback for students and parents, and not as feedback that might motivate adjustments to teaching practices. On one occasion at our local school, for example, a near 90% failure rate on an in-class science test resulted, not in the science teacher considering that maybe she should reteach the lesson in a different way, but in her sending out an blast email to parents complaining about how badly their children did and how they clearly hadn't studied hard enough.

This last example is giving me some feedback: I'm realizing now that I need to reformulate what I'm suggesting here. It's not enough to have a feedback loop; there also needs to be some built-in motivation to actually pay attention to that feedback and make appropriate adjustments.


Auntie Ann said...

A friend reported that, when the standardized test results came back to our kids' school, the third grade teachers held a class meeting and berated the students for not doing well.

Apparently, it didn't cross their minds that the fault was on the part of the school, the curriculum chosen, the constructivist classroom design, or the teachers.

FedUpMom said...

Ugh. I don't know what kind of intervention would be required to get classroom teachers to actually consider changing what they do because of the poor results they get. My top-ten list includes the moment that my daughter's first-grade teacher, who had a class of exactly 11 students that year, told me that I shouldn't worry about her recommendation that DD go to summer school to learn to read: "I've recommended summer school for several of the kids." Really? That's a 25% known failure rate. The teacher seemed completely comfortable with that, and confident that it's a failure on the kids' part.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell, all difficulties children have in school are attributed to the child not only by teachers, but also by administrators and, frequently, the children's own parents. This is why it is so difficult to get bad teachers fired (I mean in addition to the issues with the teachers' union).

lgm said...

As far as I can tell, the elementary teachers are only required to present a lesson twice, then they can sit back and wait until the child qualifies for intervention. There is no requirement for reacting to summative or formative assessment results other than waiting and writing a referral. And there is no requirement to teach in a manner that the nonspecial needs child can understand...if we did that, we wouldnt have to have all these specialists to do pullouts and pushins to teach phonics and math. Parents know that choosing the teacher is just as important as the zip code, and they will vote with their feet. My district emptied out when AP/IB level coursework was dropped in order to provide more 'support' to remedial transplants. I expect my grandchildren to be in private or homeschool, as the district doesnt want nonspecial needs students as they dont come with enough money to support the staff.