Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Tail Wagging the Dog? A Commentary on Deliberating About Ends

Perhaps the most persistent characteristic of our times is the inability to deliberate about ends or values. As a culture, we often treat value disagreements as if they are purely matters of opinion that are not subject to rational deliberation. Alaistair MacIntyre describes this phenomenon well in his book, After Virtue. He claims that the character of the manager epitomizes our age. The manager wants to turn  disjointed human capital into a well-oiled machine of productive accomplishments. Another managerial goal is to turn raw materials into a finished product. In short, the manager is someone who exclusively deliberates about the most effective means of accomplishing goals and values that are set externally. This tendency, I would suggest, is the reason why it is so easy for us to have ethical failures in our businesses, politicians, and so forth. We are simply unable to deliberate in a coherent and rational way about whether ends are important and how ends should be rank ordered. Rather than argue for ends, we will often attempt to castigate and disparage someone who disagrees with the ends we find most important or the way in which we rank order them.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the Iowa City School Board over the last year or so was seeing them play the role of manager in the sense in which I've described it above. With Hoover as a clear example, the board consistently avoiding deliberating about the underlying value judgments behind their positions, and there was simply no evidence of any substantive deliberation about how to adjudicate value disagreements -- between, say, the value of keeping smaller elementary schools open compared to the value of expanding a high school (there are many other value disagreements that would need to be discussed, evaluated, and rank-ordered too, many of which I mention below) -- prior to the original decision made on July 23, 2013. The deliberation centered almost entirely on questions of means and implementation. How much money will it cost? Why couldn't we build this here or that there? Will people find the proposal politically palatable? And so forth. For my money, those are typically the exact sorts of questions that the administration would be perfectly capable of answering if the board as a whole gave clear direction about the relative importance of its values and commitments.

For further evidence of this tendency, simply ask school board members about the underlying values behind the positions that they have supported and how those values are rank-ordered in comparison to other values. If the response you hear is anything like what I've heard, you'll hear them quickly redirect the question to issues of means or implementation -- they'll answer you in terms of finances or logistics. This tendency is a pathology in modern society, and it hampers rational deliberation. Of course, these comments do not mean that questions about finances, logistics, or implementation are unimportant. Rather, it means that they are, in principle, unresolveable without prior (implicit or explicit) agreement about values and their relative rank-ordering. 

Put another way: I'm concerned that the tail is wagging the dog. I have no doubt that board members are making value judgments about these important issues, but my concern is that a lack of deliberation about those values will make it increasingly likely that those values are adopted uncritically from external sources.And as a result, more often than not, it seems that BLDD, the administration, and/or who ever has the ear of the school board directors at the moment set the ends/value with little or no substantive public deliberation about them. And that's not good for our schools or our community.

Karen over at Education in Iowa compared the values in the educational establishment with the values in medicine. I would go further than Karen, and say that education is much worse off. There are four clear values in medical practice: beneficence (do good), non-malfeasance (do no harm), autonomy (don't substitute your values for the patients), and justice (fair distribution of medical resources/goods). In education, what are the most important values? Could we list them? Would that list be exhaustive? And, even if we had the four central values (or whatever number that is!) in education, we would still have the same problem that is currently found in medical practice. That is, it isn't exactly clear how to adjudicate cases where one or more of those values come into conflict. For instance, do you perform a surgery that could give the patient many more quality years of life (beneficence) even if the patient doesn't want it (v. autonomy)? In other words, we'd still have the problem of rank-ordering those values. If you cannot identify and deliberate about underlying values, then you'll have a hard time deciding what to do when differences in values or a differences in a rank-ordering of values come to the fore in a practical issue.

But I'm not one to criticize without offering my suggestions. So what would I like to see the school board do in its oversight rather than what it is currently doing? I'd much rather see them discuss how we should prioritze our values than debate minor financial or logistical issues in board and committee meetings. Is achieving equity of student achievement our highest goal? Or is it low student-teacher ratios? Or is it minimizing tax payer expenses? Or is it protecting a particular geographical area of town? Is primary or secondary education more important? How should we order these values, once we have determined what they are? Those are the types of questions the board should be discussing publicly at board and committee meetings. They can be spurred by the practical issues at hand, but we can only truly deal with disagreements about these matter if we are clear on where the disagreement lies. Furthermore, if the administration knew clearly what the board thought (as the representative of its stakeholders, the community), then the administration could more effectively achieve its goals by knowing how to implement those goals. 

*I realize that federal and state regulations regularly set ends, and I realize that many of us will disagree with those ends. And I agree that the board and the administration must work within these confines, but there is still much room for deliberation and the determination of ends within them.


  1. I couldn’t agree more with this post. It’s interesting, though, that people do seem to be driven by a strong sense of underlying values, even if we don’t have any great ways of deliberating as a community about them. At the community workshops on the facilities plan, for example, even though the district and its consultants did everything they could to push people toward plans that would have closed schools, the people who attended pushed back, and made it clear that preserving existing schools was a high priority. (The same was true in the district’s randomized phone survey.)

    It may be true that it’s just easier to focus on the questions of how to reach a given end than to discuss how to balance and prioritize conflicting values, for the reasons you describe, but I think the community workshops show that the conversation about values is out there waiting to happen, if the leadership would initiate it. I think the leadership – and particularly the administrators – don’t want to initiate it, because community preferences might conflict with their own. I’m afraid their take-away from last year's community workshop process isn’t, “Next time, let’s pay more attention to public preferences”; it’s “Next time, let’s not ask.”

    That dynamic isn’t peculiar to the ICCSD. School policy in America has become less and less responsive to community values and more and more insulated from democratic accountability, as important decisions are driven by unelected state and federal bureaucrats who are appointed by politicians whose elections do not in any meaningful sense turn on school issues. (For example, I think Obama’s education policies are terrible, but, given all the other issues at stake, that issue played no role in how I cast my vote.)

    In other words, I don’t think the shortage of discussion about values and ends is because those discussions are inherently difficult. I think it serves some people’s ends at the expense of others’. We should be asking who benefits from it.

    Another worthwhile question: Are our schools helping students (future voters, after all) learn how to have those discussions?

  2. Thanks for the good word and the comment, Chris. I think that you are right that our school district seems willing and able to have these sorts of discussions. I also wonder how the interests of the administration play into the results that we've seen. On the one hand, I realize that the administration and its leadership have particular goals that are often at odds with the larger community. On the other hand, I believe that the failure is largely the board's rather than the administration. If the board clearly articulated the values and commitments of our community, and if they rank-ordered those values, or at least discussed, evaluated, and gave a provisional rank-ordering of those values to the administration, then the board could hold the administration accountable if it failed to uphold those values. As it stands, the board seems to defer any deliberation about value differences to the administration. As evidenced by the fact that Murley was the first person I ever heard give a cogent, value-laden defense of Hoover's closure (i.e., one that didn't directly contradict the evidence that was available prior to July 23). His defense, however, would stop when you got to a specific value judgement -- and he'd rightly claim that it's the board's job to make those judgments in light what the stakeholders (the community) wants.

    I also think you are right to ask how our education is helping students become good citizens who can evaluate arguments, reasons, and values as needed. At my kids age (my oldest is 7), I think its primarily about getting the academic skills and vocabulary such that our kids will be able to evaluate positions and views logically and present their own views persuasively as they get older (but, of course, it is child dependent).

  3. Interesting and excellent post. If values were better articulated, board members would likely find it easier to set priorities and might be able to better articulate material questions for their employee (the superintendent). I worked for a subsidiary of a company years ago that did an excellent job of setting forth values and informing the employees and constituents of them. These values paved the way for how the company did business. This is not to say that a for profit corporation's values would mimic a school corporation; however, the tone was set by the top level of the parent company and then permeated throughout the company and its subsidiaries. I would say, however, that the company's board was known for asking tough questions of its top executive and I'd like to see this happen with our school district more often. A values oriented approach from the top down seemed quite effective to me.

    We could all glean some wisdom from ICCSD's music programs. Tonight I attended an outstanding performance of the Men's Choirs Concert at West High where men's choirs from all three ICCSD junior highs participated (singing together) and the two high school men's choirs sang also (plus, a men's choir from Wartburg). Clearly, music is valued in our community and the directors and choirs show that in the area of music, student participation and unity among schools is valued also. The students and audience members looked happy also.

  4. Thanks for the good word and the comment, Mary. I think you prior corporation is a good example of what I have in mind, but I would add that I don't think it is simply a 'top-down' approach. Presumably the values the board articulated was informed and shaped by their understanding of their shareholders (and perhaps stakeholders more generally). And in a political and educational context, that would certainly be the case. I don't see your 'setting the tone at the top' as being at odds with this notion, but I think it is important to not have values set simply by the arbitrary whims of those from the board and administration at the top. That's somewhat like what you have going on now.

    I also like your example of the music programs -- I think music has a way of creating unity that escapes other practices, but I am also a big fan of vigorous competition and it is good and right to cultivate a healthy sense of that too. However, I am well aware that tying competition exclusively to achieving goods external to the practice, like esteem, the trophy, the highest score, etc. can become pernicious if they are not accompanied by good internal to the practice (academic or other skills needed to accomplish the task, virtues of patience, courage, honesty and so forth).

    Thanks again for the comment.