The objective paradox

This entire article on creativity is worth a read, but one passage in particular caught my attention:

In one experiment a bipedal robot programmed to walk farther and farther actually ended up walking less far than one that simply was programmed to do something novel again and again, Stanley writes. Falling on the ground and flailing your legs doesn’t look much like walking, but it’s a good way to learn to oscillate, and oscillation is the most effective motion for walking. If you lock your objectives strictly on walking, you won’t hit that oscillation stepping stone. Stanley calls this the “objective paradox” — as soon as you create an objective, you ruin your ability to reach it.

The objective paradox explains why NCLB’s approach to accountability failed. It asked our schools to “walk farther” without a full appreciation for the complexity of what it would take to accomplish the task. Some schools were able to respond to this challenge and many students benefited as a result.

However, far too many schools were not equipped to meet the goals set by NCLB. Instead of allowing schools to “flail and oscillate,” NCLB drove them to focus on getting one step further down the path. As many have acknowledged, this had the unintended consequence of forcing schools to divert too much focus too reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects and priorities that may have actually contributed to better reading and math comprehension.


This isn’t to say that setting goals for reading and math achievement isn’t important, but to emphasize that too much focus on these goals can have a deleterious impact on student outcomes.

Education reformers (myself included) have an impatient desire for rapid change and improvement when we see public school system that fails to adequately serve students, particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and poor students. It’s a perfectly reasonable position - these children don’t have the luxury of time on their side. We are right to seek solutions now and not at some distant future date.

At the same time, we need to temper that relentless drive to improve the quality of public education for all children with the humility to understand two constraints:

  • We don’t know what the perfect system looks like.
  • Progress won’t always be measured by annual, linear changes in math and reading scores.

Many high-performing schools already understand this. Morgan Polikoff recently visited Success Academies in NYC and observed that the instruction and culture of the school was nothing like the caricature of a test-obsessed, drill-and-kill school solely focused on boosting reading and math scores. Instead, he found that their primary goals for students in English/Language Arts are: “for students to 1) love literature and want to read, and 2) be able to understand what they’re reading.”

Polikoff also identifies several important structural elements that contribute to SA’s success. This includes a strong emphasis on student-led dialogue, excellent classroom management procedures, and an instructional culture that embraces feedback/coaching. None of those structural elements, taken on their own, would allow a school to achieve math and reading results similar to SA, but developing these systems (or other approaches) is analogous to the walking robot flailing and oscillating its legs. Getting them right won’t directly lead to achieving success for students, but they’re foundational prerequisites to ultimately achieving that success.

ESSA will give states the flexibility to develop accountability systems that acknowledge this better than NCLB-era accountability systems. States and the reform advocates holding them accountable would be wise to consider the objective paradox and grapple with the challenge of striking a balance between the competing desires for rapid improvement and allowing room for schools to develop solid fundamental practices.