First Person

Commentary: The fallacy of Chesterton's Fence

Alexander Ooms, a senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a member of the board of the Charter School Institute, the West Denver Preparatory Charter School and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children.

I recently came across – in, of all places, an essay on tax polices for capital gains — a topic I think resonates in any discussion on education reform: The Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence.

I like fallacies.  As a somewhat directionless undergraduate philosophy major, I lost interest in the Heidegger seminar, but I became increasingly entranced by basic logic and understanding how people think.  Fallacies are potholes in rational thought. Understand how to recognize them and one is more able to avoid them.  Help other people see them and you are more likely to find consensus.

The short version of the Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence is this: don’t ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.  Simple enough. However, particularly as it relates to education reform, the long version is worth reading:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle […].  There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

There are a lot of fences in education policy, and there is often a rush to dismantle them.  In many cases this is justified.  In some it is not.  But in all cases, it is worth asking: why was this particular fence erected in the first place?

Take, for example, the single salary structure of most public school districts (including Denver).  This policy establishes strict uniform pay differentiated only by years in the job (and highest educational degree obtained).  It’s hard to argue in the current day that an elementary gym teacher and a high school science teacher have jobs that should be paid exactly the same – or that a gym teacher with more years in the job should always be paid more.  But before we decide to tear down the single-salary fence, why is it there?

Well, the single salary schedule was put in place in the early 20th century, in large part to prevent salary discrimination against women, who were often paid less than their male counterparts — particularly as teaching was one of the few jobs that was socially acceptable for women at all.  At the time, there was not much in the way of HR systems, it was not easy to compare or monitor pay systems. Without a clear problem of discrimination, and without other mechanisms to prevent it, a single, centralized plan made sense.  The single-salary fence was put in place with a pretty good purpose in mind.

I would argue – for lots of reasons – that this fence should now be taken down, but I would not argue against its original intent.  And if one wants to dismantle this particular fence (which, please note, is not an argument against either unions generally or collective bargaining), one should make sure that any change maintains the reason it was enacted in the first place.  Whatever pay program might replace single salary systems, it should not discriminate against women (or anyone else).  Understanding why a policy was enacted should help clarify a discussion to see if it is still serving the purpose for which it was intended.

It’s one of my general beliefs that a lot of the educational fences that reformers want to take down are there for reasons that many would have wholeheartedly agreed with at the time.  Many of these fences were built to protect the same principals that reformers now invoke to argue for their removal: fairness and equity.

The arguments in education these days are all too often about protecting or dismantling a policy and rarely about why the policy exists and if there is a better way to achieve the same goals.  My hope is that applying the fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence allows for more common ground.  When confronted with a policy fence, we should try to recognize the principals inherent in its creation, and if they are still served or if another structure is more appropriate.  We should all want fences placed so that everyone can be on the same side.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.